In 2011, while dealing with a divorce, Michele Ynfante’s husband accused her of incidents that landed her in the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, the Los Angeles County Women’s Jail.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Ynfante of the detention center, where she witnessed physical, psychological and said deputies sexually abuse female inmates.
“They’d rather wield their batons and abuse you than explain the system to you,” describes the woman who was part of a protest on Monday August 1 in front of the Los Angeles Federal Court where former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was showing up to face accusations about the role he had with a abuse inside the county jails.
Ynfante said she was at the detention for six months and said while there, she witnessed women with medical conditions, and even pregnant women, not given care.
“From the moment I went in there I was propositioned sexually by sheriff’s deputies for food, phone calls, everything,” she describes.
She says she also saw deputies encouraging fights among the detainees.
“It’s devastating to women there,” Ynfante notes.
At the end of six months, and after injuring her shoulder, Ynfante was sent to the medical unit, where, while waiting for an X-Ray, she was faced with a shocking sight, she said.
“A member of the medical staff told me to wait and when he returned he came out with his pants around his ankles and his penis in his hand. I ran out of there,” Ynfante said.
She said she wanted to complain, but when you’re “inside,” you don’t know who you can talk to. When she was released from the facility in the middle of the night, left in a not very safe neighborhood in Lynwood.
Changing the System from Within
After “escaping to New York” to try to forget her six-month incarceration, Ynfante returned to Los Angeles and became vocal about the need to reform the county’s jail facilities.
It was no shock to her and others in the group that a corruption scandal finally came to light which rattled the county jails and the Sheriff’s Department which oversees it. Seven officers and deputies have received federal sentences, as well as former Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka.
Former County Sheriff Lee Baca is also heading to trial over his involvement in the abuse of police powers within the jails after withdrawing his guilty plea to a federal corruption charge.
But for Ynfante, whether Baca gets six months, 5 or 15 years behind bars is only part of the justice for those who have faced abuse within the jail system.
The ultimate goal she and others have been advocating for is a civilian oversight committee for the Sheriff, similar to the Los Angeles Police Commission, but with real power.
“When there’s any kind of police misconduct, we can hold the department accountable and during investigations we would be able to subpoena the deputies’ records, data and video,” said the Administrator/Campaign Lead for the Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence.
Ynfante is part of a slate of nine candidates for the Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Committee supported by Dignity and Power Now, a grassroots organization that describes itself as a group that fights for the dignity and power of incarcerated people, their families, and communities.
The Committee would be composed of nine commissioners to be chosen by Los Angeles County Supervisors (five of whom will be appointed by this legislative body); four others would come from the community.
Ynfante, who has been been researching litigation, budgets and learning to lobby and write bills, hopes she can help others in jail avoid the misfortunes she experienced behind bars. She also hopes to stop the abuse that goes on in jails from officers.
“If we (the Committee) had subpoena power, we’d be able to see deputies’ records to see if there’s a pattern of bad behavior from officers,” she says.
“We would have accountability. Right now there’s no one policing the Sheriff’s department,” Ynfante says.
The other Dignity and Power Now slate members include community and labor organizer Akili, Co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter National Network Patrisse Cullors, Rabbi Heather Miller of the world’s first LGBT founded Jewish congregation, Associate Professor of Law at Loyola Law School Priscilla Ocen, Vice President of the The National Police Accountability Project Samuel Paz, Lloyd Wilkey of the Museum of Tolerance, the Youth Justice Coalition’s Dayvon Williams, and Dignity and Power Now Civilian Oversight Campaign Lead Steve Rogers.
Experience and Accountability
“These are people with dedication to the human rights of black and brown community,” said ark-Anthony Johnson, Director of Health and Wellness for Dignity and Power Now.
“These individuals have a lot of credibility within the community and fit the criteria for having expertise. These folks are the most qualified given what we’re faced against,” Johnson added.
The most egregious issues facing county jails, said Johnson, are the incarcerated people not getting the medication they need, women (including those pregnant) not given proper care and lack of data around custody operations and use of force.
Of particular concern is the lack of data, said Johnson because “it violates the trust of the community and upholds the culture of violations” within the jail system.
Violations that are evident given the fact that former Sheriff Lee Baca is trying to avoid going to jail, claiming he suffers from Alzheimer’s and that his ailment would put him at risk should he be sent behind bars, both Johnson and Ynfante maintain.
“Even he [Baca} admits that there’s no proper care,” Johnson said.
“There’s something wrong with the system if the person who has been running it doesn’t want to get locked up in it. Ynfante said with the present conditions and the abuse that goes on in County jails, ” they shouldn’t have anyone in there.”