Almost 10,000 inmates are locked in the Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers complex on a dead-end block in downtown Los Angeles. The county releases inmates 24 hours a day, and each night dozens of them, sometimes 100 or more, stream out the jailhouse doors and onto the city’s darkened streets. The Los Angeles Times calls the scene “one of the city’s oddest nightly dramas,” complete with fear and anger, relief and jubilation. Friends and family wait for some. But many have no money and no way to get home – if they even have a home. For those, a free shuttle will ferry them to the homeless shelters and drab hotels of skid row.
Sheriff Lee Baca, who oversees the county jails, says he is legally bound to release inmates once their term is up – even if that means the middle of the night. In 2001, the county agreed to pay $27 million to settle several class-action lawsuits that accused the county of routinely holding inmates beyond their release dates. Los Angeles is not alone. Other urban jails follow similar procedures. Orange County regularly frees inmates at 2 or 3 a.m. In Houston, prisoners leave the Harris County jail around the clock. At New York City’s Rikers Island complex, inmates are released en masse at 5 a.m. and transported to a subway stop in Queens.