LA supervisors to consider $2 billion jail building plan

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The L.A. County Board of Supervisors will meet Tuesday to discuss plans to replace the decrepit Men’s Central Jail, home to about 5,000 county jail inmates and some of the biggest scandals in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s recent history.

The proposals before the board present five options for tearing down and replacing the jail with a new facility focused on mental health, substance abuse, and medical treatment. The plans, put together by the construction firm Vanir, also call for refurbishing the shuttered Mira Loma Detention Center to house women inmates. The options all carry a cost of around $2 billion. If any of the proposals go to construction, it’ll be one of the highest cost capital projects ever undertaken by L.A. County.

The price-tag has many worried.

Like Diana Zuniga, organizer for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, an organization that opposes all jail construction.

“If the county decides to go in on construction bonds, then that will be the responsibility of the county taxpayers to pay back double or triple in the future,” Zuniga said.

But Supervisor Gloria Molina said L.A. County has little choice. The county is under federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for inadequate mental health care for inmates in the jail system.

“The DOJ is on my behind, telling me that I need to get this done and find a replacement as soon as possible,” Molina said. “Otherwise we’re going to be in a consent decree, which is going to force all of us here to have the feds determine how we’re going to move forward on replacement of this jail.”

When citing the worst case scenario, county leaders point to California’s state prison system, which appealed a class action judgement on inadequate medical and mental health care all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court--and then lost.

L.A. County Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who runs the jails, came to L.A. from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She said what happened to the state--a federal receivership that now touches on every aspect of the prison system--could happen here.

Mainly, she said, the county’s having trouble complying with a decades old agreement with the federal government to provide adequate mental health care to inmates. McDonald said it’s a facilities issue.

“There’s simply not treatment space in these jails for that function,” McDonald said. “They were built as temporary holding for people to go to court. Not for ongoing therapeutic treatment.”

But Zuniga also sees lessons in the state’s experience.

Years after CDCR invested about $900 million in a new medical mental health facility in Stockton, the L.A. Times recently reported the prison hospital remains have empty due to hygiene and staffing issues.

“So they created this ‘more humane’ prison that could serve this portion of the community,” Zuniga said. “But it really didn’t answer the problems that California is facing. It just created more problems.”

McDonald said the example of the Stockton facility is really one of how federal intervention can make things more complicated and ultimately more expensive than addressing problems before they escalate.

“That facility was primarily designed by employees who represented the federal receiver,” McDonald said. “It’s expensive to operate, it was expensive to build. And state corrections officials were in a position where they didn’t have full authority on what that looked like or how it was built or how it was operated. And that could easily happen here.”

Still, mental health advocates question whether L.A. County has really thought about alternatives to building a massive new jail.

“I agree that Men’s Central Jail should be torn down,” said Marsha Temple, executive director of the Integrated Recovery Network. “But if a new jail is to be built, it does not have to be huge. And I am categorically opposed to putting mentally ill people in jail if they haven’t committed a very significant crime. Jail is not a therapeutic environment.”

Instead, she said, the county should invest in its community-based mental health providers and residential treatment facilities. The local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also sent a letter to the board, protesting the proposed jail and calling on research into alternatives.

McDonald, however, said programs that divert low-risk mentally ill inmates out of the jail system won’t account for enough people to eliminate the need for an entire jail. She said a report by the county on alternatives to incarceration to reduce the jail population is currently in the works.

As of yet, there are no numbers that all sides agree on of inmates who could better be served in a community setting. Nor are there concrete numbers as to what alternatives--like residential or outpatient mental health treatment--cost compared to jail cells.

Tuesday’s board meeting, which promises to draw a big crowd, will likely not result in a final decision on any one plan. Supervisors could vote to delay any project until after a new sheriff is elected--either in June, or in a November runoff--which is something all seven candidates support.

Or the board could choose a single proposal and hire an architectural firm to begin the design process.

Either way, Molina said, there are many decisions yet to be made and much room for changes. She’s inclined to move forward.

“We could think about it and we could do it for another ten years, if we want,” Molina said. “But it’s been a long time coming already to get a replacement for Men’s Central.”

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