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LA's jail building plan needs further study, say county supervisors

Grant Slater/KPCC

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca conducts an inspection of Men's Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles in this photo from December 2011.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's proposal for a nearly $1 billion jail construction project needs thorough evaluation by an outside entity, the county Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday.

Supervisors directed the county's CEO to commission a study of current jail needs and what they might be over the next 20 to 30 years. 

Baca's latest proposal for replacing downtown L.A.'s Men's Central Jail with a more modern facility calls for reopening the shuttered Mira Loma jail to house women, and moving men into the Century Regional Detention Facility—the current women's jail. Baca's proposal also calls for building two new towers on the site of Men's Central Jail.

"It takes the old building—which is not adequate in modern times, puts it out of commission, and then you have the new towers and they are functional, operational and constitutional," Baca said. 

Men's Central, a "linear" jail built partially in the 1960s, consists of rows of cell blocks. The linear style of jail has since gone out of fashion because it's more staff-intensive and potentially less safe than the now-popular pod-like designs that allow staff to see into all cells at once. 

Peter Eliasberg, of the ACLU of Southern California—which called Men's Central "nightmarish" in a 2009 report—agreed that it's time for the old jail to go. 

"Men's Central jail is a disaster. It needs to be closed," Eliasberg said. 

But he said the "parade of proposals" that have come before the supervisors regarding the county's jail needs have lacked a fundamental component: planning.

"One minute they're telling us the jails can hold 21,000 people," said Eliasberg. "Six months later, they're telling us they can hold 14,000 people." 

Eliasberg said the county "has not done the basic studies" of the the current jail capacity and the projections for how many inmates the county system will need to house in the future, especially considering the sheriff's plans for alternatives to incarceration.

Baca said he hopes to present the Board of Supervisors with the study's results in three months, plus a revised jail construction plan if necessary. 

"We've been working on this plan for years," Baca said. "As you can see, we have to be not only cautious, but do the right thing. I think the Board is wise to have us more review what is possible."

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