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Seeking redemption: A death row inmate’s journey into L.A. County’s largest psych ward

Armstrong knew he risked a reprimand for not following orders. At any moment, the deputies would storm the unit. He knew they saw Ray as an unresponsive inmate, but he saw a patient in distress.

He feared that Ray would fight back. His fists were clenched.

“Hey, Ray, I want you to come in here,” Armstrong said, encouraging the inmate to return to his cell. “I want you to be safe.”

If there were a fight, someone would likely get hurt, and all that he had worked so hard to get — the DVD player, monitor, plants, snacks, toiletries — could get trashed in the struggle.

“I want you to be safe,” Armstrong repeated and explained that the deputy didn’t know his wife, had been on shift all morning, hadn’t even left the floor.

Armstrong saw custody staff taking up their shields. Ray kept screaming. They were about to move. Pepper spray would be used, a Taser the last resort. Armstrong stepped closer and reached out and touched Ray.

The two men locked eyes, and like a flipped switch, Ray fell silent. His expression went slack, and as if nothing had happened, he returned to his cell. Armstrong made sure his door was secure.

Rules are often bent on the fourth floor of Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where many inmates are like Ray — volatile and frightened, the worst symptoms of their mental illnesses kept in check by a balance of medication and monitoring.

When Armstrong first heard about working here, it sounded like a good deal: passing out meals and snacks, helping with meds and hygiene, keeping cells and common areas clean, all in exchange for his own cell and a few extra privileges.

Armstrong had returned to Los Angeles from San Quentin months earlier after unexpectedly winning his appeal in 2016. The state Supreme Court had tossed out his conviction of murdering three brothers in Inglewood in 2001. Still facing the charges, he remained in custody while his attorney and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office discussed a plea deal or another trial.

He had initially been housed in the nearby Men’s Central Jail, but the politics — the often violent racial divisions — kept him on edge. Living and working among the inmates in Twin Towers, the jail’s de facto mental hospital just across the street, gave him an out.

There were times when he wanted to give up. He knew little about mental illness, how erratic moods govern behavior, how anger or fear leads to violence or withdrawal. He heard the men crying at night. He saw how they tried to hurt themselves, sometimes succeeding.

But partnering with another inmate, Adrian Berumen, Armstrong, 42, grew adept at interacting with the inmates, whom he came to see as patients. Over the last six years, he and Berumen, 28, who left Twin Towers in 2022 to serve a sentence in state prison, engineered a transformation inside the county jail system.

The idea — initially developed by the county Department of Health Services, which is responsible for providing healthcare in the jails — was based on peer counseling programs and brought inmates from the general population into the jail’s psychiatric units, where they would live and assist county staff with treatment services.

The program had been in place, but the results were inconsistent until Armstrong and Berumen arrived. They studied and collaborated. They recruited and trained other inmates, put together a six-month educational curriculum and started calling themselves mental health assistants. They wrote a book and were invited to speak to students at Stanford and Cornell universities and to members of the National Assn. of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

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