By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Department of Justice has determined that Los Angeles County's jails violate the Constitution by failing to provide adequate mental health services to suicidal inmates, the latest black mark to the nation's already troubled largest jail system.
The Justice Department, making its latest report this week in a 2002 agreement with the county to monitor its jails, found that there had been 15 suicides at its lockups in the past 30 months, some of them preventable with proper mental health practices.
"The Los Angeles County jails have an obligation to provide conditions of confinement that do not offend the Constitution and to take reasonable measures to protect inmates from harm," said Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general for the department's Civil Rights Division.
The DOJ proposed entering into a new court agreement with the county to protect the mentally ill at the sprawling jail system, which houses some 19,000 prisoners and is operated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
The report marks another blow to a sheriff's department that has been beset with allegations of civil rights violations and corruption.
Federal prosecutors have charged 18 current or former deputies with beating or wrongly detaining inmates and visitors at two downtown Los Angeles lockups and trying to cover up the abuse. Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca retired earlier this year rather than seek re-election.
"Every suicide and attempted suicide is of great concern to us," sheriff's officials said in a written statement issued in response to the DOJ report.
"We are disappointed that today's report fails to fully recognize the additional progress made over the last year and a half to improve mental health services," sheriff's officials said. "The report also mischaracterizes and significantly understates the incredible efforts made to improve our suicide prevention practices."
The DOJ entered into a so-called "memorandum of agreement" with Los Angeles County in 2002 following an investigation into its jail system that found serious deficiencies in mental health care.
In the report issued this week, the Justice Department found that the county had made progress in some areas of the agreement but fell short in providing suicide prevention practices.
The assessment also documented widespread lapses in supervising prisoners at risk of suicide, "deplorable environmental conditions" at some jails and a flawed suicide review process.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sandra Maler)