The results of a recently released UCLA study that stated “disproportionate” numbers of African American and Latino inmates had died “natural” or “undetermined” in county jails run by the Sheriff’s Department has prison reform advocates again calling for their closure — in particular, the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.  

Researchers working at UCLA’s Carceral Ecologies Lab and the BioCritical Studies Lab reviewed the data from 59 autopsies out of the 292 jail deaths between 2009 and 2019. (The other autopsies were not made available at that time because of “security holds” on the information placed by the department). Of those 59 cases, 26 inmates died from “natural causes.” Of that total, 17 were African Americans (14 men, three women) and six were Latino (all men).

And according to the report, 85% of the 59 autopsies showed evidence of mental illness, and 54% showed evidence of violence to the body.

Also listed in the report were autopsies of Asians and Whites. But the African American deaths were nearly twice as likely to be designated as “natural” deaths compared to Asian, Latino and White natural death totals combined.

There were eight deaths of “undetermined causes”; five were Latino and three were African American. And every Latino death that was deemed “undetermined” had occurred before trial. Also, according to the study, in all the undetermined cases the average age at death was 24.5 years of age, as opposed to an average of 42 years of age for all cases.

The average life expectancy of the average US adult at the time the autopsies were conducted was nearly 79 years.

“Our study shows that the majority of Black and Latino men are not dying from ‘natural causes’ but from the actions of jail deputies and carceral staff,” the report stated in its summary, which also called for “the urgent need to reduce the jail population to expedite the closing of Men’s Central Jail and the potentially life-saving benefits of jail diversion programs for the people of Los Angeles County.”

The report also noted that law enforcement was present at 51 of the 59 autopsies in the study. Of the 292 total deaths, 109 were Latino and 100 were African American.

Mark Anthony Clayton-Johnson is the executive director of Dignity & Power Now, which bills itself as an LA-based grassroots “anchor organization” for JusticeLA, a coalition of organizations seeking progressive law enforcement reforms.

He said the results of the report were “not surprising.”

“The Civilian Oversight Commission, which is the commission that our organization fought for, is currently doing an investigation around deputy gangs. A recent public hearing really exposed a lot of the present and functioning deputy gangs. And when we see in a clear light how these things operate, it’s not surprising,” Clayton-Johnson said. 

“I think what is important about this report is it shows the reach of the Sheriff’s Department, the type of coordination that the Sheriff’s Department has with other entities such as the medical examiner’s office, and that for us, it is important to expose this. And we’re really going to stop the Sheriff’s violence and all of its forms.”

Clayton-Johnson also told the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol that the “security holds” on the remaining autopsies have been lifted, and that the remaining autopsies would now be reviewed and analyzed.

But even the 59 autopsies have red flags, Clayton-Johnson said.

“What is really concerning is that 75% of people who died, died before they could plead their case,” he said. They were in ‘pre-trial’, which means legally they were innocent.

“And so the ‘fact’ of the matter is that if you are in ‘pre-trial’ in Los Angeles County, the likelihood of mortality increases and that is an unacceptable reality for us.”

He also took issue with the percentage of “natural deaths” assigned to the results of African Americans.

“That 74% of all black deaths in the sample were classified as ‘natural’ is very upsetting, especially when you consider that black folks are only 8% of the county population. I mean, that in itself is alarming … [and] when you talk about the idea that black and Latinx folks are disproportionately represented in the deaths, that’s deeply concerning,” Clayton-Johnson said. 

A statement released by The Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office disputed the study’s results, saying the report contains “several significant mischaracterizations and false statements. Most concerning are the allegations that the Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner is involved in ‘covering up’ how deaths may be occurring among the inmate population.”

It went on to say, “The most egregious implication made by the report is that DMEC doctors are willfully misclassifying deaths to an opinion that is not based on their specialized expertise in forensic pathology. The DMEC is separate from any law enforcement agency in the county and exercises its own independent judgment when conducting death investigations and concluding the cause and manner of death without any influence from other agencies. The allegation that DMEC and its personnel are unduly influenced by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is false.”

Clayton-Johnson responded by saying, “If the coroner’s office was interested in correcting the really terrible patterns of validating or covering up the Sheriff’s violence and abuse in the jail, I think we would have gotten a different response. To call it a ‘mischaracterization’ and ‘inaccurate’, is really a slap in the face of the families who are reading the autopsy reports about their loved ones, and knowing deep down in their bones that what they’re reading is not what happened.

“We’re also analyzing exactly what was given to us,” he said. “The matter is that 44% of people who died of ‘natural causes’ in the cases we were able to analyze, many of them had evidence of violence, physical violence on their body. Call that what you want. But it’s a fact that was written by someone in that office as they were analyzing the body, and it’s certainly not a ‘mischaracterization.’”

Helen Jones, a Los Angeles resident who works with Dignity & Power Now as a community organizer, said her son John Horton was beaten more than once in 2009 by a deputy gang while he was incarcerated in the Sheriff’s Department Men’s Central Jail. She and her family filed a civil suit against Los Angeles County, alleging her son should have been placed in a mental health unit but was instead put into solitary confinement. According to published reports, Horton, 22, hung himself in his cell.

In 2011, the county Board of Supervisors authorized a payout of $2 million to Jones’ family. At the time, family attorney Ronald Kaye called the settlement “the biggest ever in a jail suicide case in California.”

Eleven years later, Jones can still readily list a variety of injuries she said Horton sustained from the attack.

“When they beat my son, they busted his liver,” Jones said. “They burst his kidney. They busted his pancreas, and his spleen was missing. The county coroner didn’t have [the spleen], they said they washed it down the garbage disposal by accident. I don’t believe that. What I truly believe is that his spleen was so damaged that they didn’t want anybody to ever see that.”

Jones also said her son was hit in the head with a flashlight.

“They call it ‘flashlight therapy,’” she said. “They left [an imprint of] the flashlight on his forehead with a knot and a blood clot. They also hit him in the side of his temple with a flashlight twice. And they also hit him in his back with a flashlight, where they left three lines from the flashlight right on his back.”

Seeking justice for her son is one reason why Jones — who is still trying to revive a criminal complaint against the Sheriff’s Department for her son’s death — joined Dignity & Power Now. She also wants other families who have lost incarcerated sons or daughters to get better information if they were left unsatisfied by “official” explanations.

It’s why more studies like the one by UCLA need to occur and be brought to light, Jones believes.

“I know the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t want people to know that the Sheriff’s Department and the county coroner are aiding and abetting Sheriff’s gang deputies, and they’ve been doing it for years,” she said. “I know they do not want this out. They don’t want this out.

“[Reports like this] will help. It’s real data, backed up by facts. Families that now have this also have the depositions, have the autopsy reports, have the [crime scene] photos of our kids beaten, where you can actually see the bruises and all of that.”

When the data from the remaining autopsies are made available, Clayton-Johnson believes it will reveal more evidence of abusive and illegal behavior.

“You know, the [sheriff’s department] plays a role in this really scathing history of harming Black and Brown people. And the county Board of Supervisors plays a role because they appoint the medical examiner. They are certainly accountable for the behaviors and medical negligence and practices. That office which is supposed to be independent and clearly has not been throughout history,” Clayton-Johnson said.

“We have the remaining cases now that were not available to us when we initially requested them. We were not given any information as to why they were released. But we have them now, and we’re analyzing them.”