Jails activist Patrisse Cullors

Patrisse Cullors leads the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in Los Angeles. She is hoping to establish a civilian commission to oversee the troubled L.A. County Sheriff's Department. (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times / January 30, 2014)

Outside the bunker-like county jail complex, bail bondsmen hover by the visitors' entrance, thrusting fliers at potential customers as they file in to see husbands, sons and friends. Along the sidewalk, taxi drivers hustle for fares among newly released inmates who pace about, dialing cellphones, reconnecting and searching for rides.

A young woman with a short shock of dreadlocks atop a mostly shaved head set off by chunky gold earrings joins them. She has a brisk walk, a broad smile — and a clipboard.

Patrisse Cullors, self-described "freedom fighter, fashionista, wife of Harriet Tubman," comes to the jail complex regularly in search of recruits to her 18-month-old campaign to upend what she contends is a culture of violence among deputies inside the walls.

Jail activist: An article in the April 14 Section A about jail activist Patrisse Cullors included a reference that misspelled her first name as Patrice.

On this afternoon outside Twin Towers jail, six young activists are awaiting their marching orders from Cullors. Before greeting them, she zeros in on a young Latino sitting on a wall re-threading his shoelaces — inmates have to surrender them for safety reasons when they are booked.

The young man is clean cut and wearing skate shoes. He signs up for Cullors' mailing list, takes a flier for an upcoming sheriff's candidates forum her group is cosponsoring and tells her he served a month for violating his probation on a drug charge — his first stay in the county jail system.

Cullors listens, jotting down information about the man and another inmate he says may have been wrongfully arrested. She promises to put him in touch with a civil rights attorney.

"I know sometimes trouble attracts people," she tells him. "But try to stay out of it. And try to get involved, because you seem awesome."


Cullors and a small group of fellow activists have helped gain new respect and momentum in the halls of power for a once-floundering idea: creating a civilian commission to oversee the troubled L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

For more than a year, Cullors' Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails has applied steady pressure on the county Board of Supervisors, in part by trying to organize a large and unlikely bloc of county voters — former jail inmates. The coalition hopes it can become a constituency with clout in the June election to replace former Sheriff Lee Baca, who unexpectedly stepped down in January.

His department had been under scrutiny by media and advocates for years over alleged abuses in the county jails. A federal investigation led to criminal charges against 18 current and former sheriff's deputies late last year.

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has pushed for civilian oversight of the department, lent support to Cullors' effort from the start. But others are skeptical of setting up a commission with no legal power over the elected sheriff.

"They have a legitimate point of view, a point of view that I actually agree with," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "Where we have a parting of ways is, doing what they want to do is not going to accomplish what they want to accomplish."

Still, Cullors' group made sure the issue stayed on the supervisors' radar — in part by recruiting dozens of former inmates to call Yaroslavsky's office.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of the board-appointed blue ribbon commission that studied jail violence in 2012, appreciates the group's efforts:

"The constant drumbeat that they were able to sound underscored for everyone on the commission the importance of the work we were doing."