Jail construction firm advises LA to build mental health facility for inmates

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

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For years, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has floated plans before the Board of Supervisors for replacing or renovating the dilapidated Men's Central Jail. He's had little progress. 

One of the primary concerns delaying the $1-billion-plus potential project has been a lack of information on the county's current and future jail needs. With that in mind, the Board in May instructed the sheriff's department and county CEO to contract a thorough analysis of who exactly is inside L.A.'s jails — and how that population might change over the next few decades.

The answer, according to Vanir Construction, which conducted the analysis, is that L.A. County's most dire need is proper facilities for its inmates with mental health, substance abuse and medical problems. 

In the 181-page report delivered to the county last Friday, Vanir presents five possible construction plans, all in the $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion range. The plans all call for demolishing Men's Central Jail (MCJ) and constructing at least one new facility, primarily dedicated to housing inmates with medical and mental health care needs. 

According to the report, that population strains the system already. And the problem will worsen in the coming years as the county's population — and the jail's population — ages. Vanir reports at least 1,300 inmates who could be housed in mental health wings currently aren't because there isn't space for them. Meanwhile, the firm predicts inmates with mental health needs will increase by 40-50 percent in the next five years. 

Twin Towers, which contains most of the system's mental health patients, has good medical facilites.

"All the other jail facilities have very limited medical clinic space for treatment of relatively minor ailments," Vanir reports. "Modern, properly designed mental health program / support space is sorely needed within the existing County jails.”

Various iterations of the plan all place a facility in Downtown L.A., near where MCJ currently stands. The firm recommended keeping MCJ open through the construction process, and demolishing it once the new facility is ready. The plans also variously call for reopening the shuttered Mira Loma Detention Center or adding a women's facility or second medical facility to the Pitchess complex in Castaic.

The plans are already drawing heat — mostly for their lack of attention to alternatives to incarceration that some say could reduce the jail population and the number of incarcerated mentally ill. 

"I'm baffled, after months and months of this, how this report could not seriously look at alternatives that don't involve so much construction," said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. "I thought it was clear that the Board wanted to see what else could be done that doesn't involve spending a billion dollars."

According to the report, the sheriff's department has a number of alternatives to lockups for inmates who qualify, but participation in such programs has declined considerably. In 2007, about 8,000 would-be inmates participated in work-release and electronic monitoring. By 2012, less than half that number participated. Moreover, the report says "participation in the first three months of 2013 has declined significantly from even the 2012 levels."

Vanir speculates that the trend might be because of a lack of eligible inmates, as many lower-risk inmates are released early from L.A.'s jails. The report does not include an account of how the county assesses inmates for alternatives to incarceration, or numbers of potentially eligible inmates.

The report also predicts L.A. County's pre-trial inmates, who account for 53.5 percent of the jail population, will not decrease. According to the report, about 1,300 such inmates have been in jail for at least a year, and another 1,360 or so for at least six months. 

A 2011 report by Vera, a criminal justice think tank, suggested reducing the pre-trial population in L.A.'s jails through a number of steps, but "very few, if any of these recommendations have been implemented." Vanir consultants met with members of the County CEO's office, jail personnel, members of other county departments and staff from the Board of Supervisors. "Stakeholders," according to Vanir, "expressed either a reasonable objection to the recommendations or identified hurdles to their implementation."

Demographics on the pre-trial population are not included in the report, but they are for the jail's overall population. According to Vanir, 55.5 percent of men and 73.8 percent of women are in jail on property or drug offenses. That, said Diana Zuniga, of Californias United for a Responsible Budget, is an indication that the jail population could be reduced.

"In four of the five recommendations, there's a plan to build a women's jail," Zuniga said. "It's very apparent that women are inside for minor offenses that need to be handled with some sort of alternative in the community that's giving them the means for employment and substance abuse programming."

Sheriff's Spokesman Steve Whitmore said his department is committed to alternatives to incarceration and reducing the pre-trial population, and has various proposals floating around that would do so. 

But, he said, "this report makes it clear that we need a mental health facility and that everyone agrees Men's Central Jail needs to be demolished."

The specifics of the report will be discussed and analyzed in the coming weeks, Whitmore said.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss the report at its July 15 meeting.