LA jail inmate students question abuses


"All of you here have unlimited potential to be somebody who you want to be," said L.A. County Sheriff's Captain Ralph Ornelas.

On a Friday morning in Men's Central Jail, Ornelas has stepped in to speak to the "share/tolerance" class, leading a discussion on personal goals.

"What goals and aspirations do you have?" he asks those attending.

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca is the driving force behind the voluntary classroom program.

"Education-based incarceration is very critical to decreasing the stress, the depression and the anxiety in inmates," said Baca.

The sheriff believes the program can be a catalyst in breaking a cycle of violence in the jails.

"And I believe there are excessive-force incidents in the jail, and my job is to prevent them from happening. I'm trying to do more than that: I'm trying to prevent force at all," said Baca.

With the allegations of deputy abuse in the jails, what the jails might be doing right is of renewed interest. It's a fact not lost on any of the inmates.

"We read about the abuses, we watch TV," said one inmate in Ornelas's classroom. "It's hard to respect a badge, it's hard to respect a uniform when all of these abuses are going on -- and they're real."

"I don't want anything to happen to any of you," said Ornelas. "I don't want anything to happen to my nurses, I don't want anything to happen to the deputies.

"All of you want respect, but you've got to give respect to get respect. And amongst each other, we have more violence among inmates on inmates than deputy on inmate," said Ornelas.

More than a thousand inmates go through the share program in a year. There are also classes addressing addictions and behavior like domestic abuse. Others work toward a high school diploma.

But there are upwards of 5,000 inmates in Central Jail and the Twin Towers Jail, many more than go through the programs.

"The sheriff has given us an edict, and the edict is that we will train and we will teach, and he also gave the edict to the captains: 'Our facility will lead it from the front,'" said Ornelas. "We're professionals. We're going to continue doing the job we know how to do."

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