Crime & Justice

LA supervisors OK spending $30M on plans for new jail, refurbishment of women's facility

Kristina Ronnquist, a psychiatric intern in L.A.'s County jails, joined protesters outside the county building as the Board of Supervisors considered a $1.8 billion jail construction plan.
Kristina Ronnquist, a psychiatric intern in L.A.'s County jails, joined protesters outside the county building as the Board of Supervisors considered a $1.8 billion jail construction plan.
Rina Palta / KPCC

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The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 (with one abstention) Tuesday to approve spending up to $30 million on plans for a new jail focused on mental health treatment and the refurbishment of a shuttered facility to house women inmates.

The vote moves forward a process — estimated by Vanir Construction to cost around $1.8 billion — that would eventually lead to the construction of the new jail, the reopening of the Mira Loma Detention Facility (which once housed immigration detainees) to house women inmates and the closure of the Men’s Central Jail.

The price tag for the total project would make it one of the costliest capital projects in L.A. County’s history.

RELATED: LA County jails at their most crowded in years

Tuesday’s move instructs the county CEO’s office to draw up a contract with an architectural firm to do initial sketches of the facility and an environmental impact report, which the county estimates will cost $30 million. The board is expected to vote on authorizing an initial architectural contract and environmental impact report in two months.

Everyone in the board’s hearing room Tuesday agreed on one thing: Men’s Central Jail, built in downtown L.A. in the 1960’s, should be closed down. The question for years has been what to do next. After years of discussions, the board has now settled on an initial plan.

“We could think about it for another 10 years if we wanted, in fact we’ve spent over 20 years thinking about this issue,” said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who voted for the measure. “It’s been a long time coming to get that replacement in line.”

Molina told KPCC that it’s better to act now than wait for lawsuits to emerge over the deteriorating conditions for mental health inmates in L.A.’s jails.

The plan forwarded Tuesday calls for a new facility to be built on the site of Men’s Central Jail —two towers that will house inmates suffering from mental health issues and substance abuse issues, as well as some of the highest security inmates.

Yaroslavsky voted no

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the far west side of the county, voted no. “I’m disappointed,” he said.

Yaroslavsky balked at the cost of the project. Vanir Construction estimates it will cost the county  $200 million per year to run the facility. “I don’t believe there was a serious effort made at considering alternatives” to building the jail, he said.

That sentiment echoed through the lines of anti-jail and mental health advocates who approached the board to give comment on the proposal.

Kristina Ronnquist — a psychiatric intern at the Century Regional Detention Facility, which houses the county’s women inmates — said she’s witnessed horrible conditions for psychiatric inmates in the jails.

“The only way for these conditions to change is for the county to put emphasis on prevention, diversion of inmates from jail into community treatment, and an enormous cultural shift,” Ronnquist said.

District Attorney Jackie Lacey told the board she’s convened a working group of county leaders to examine exactly what activists are calling for: diverting the mentally ill out of the jail system and into more therapeutic settings, such as residential treatment.

“I want you to know this is a serious effort; it’s not just people sitting around in a room,” Lacey told the board. Lacey declined to state a specific position on the jail plan, though she said her hope is that the population of the exact people the jail is meant to house—mental health inmates—will dramatically decrease in the coming years.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who abstained from the vote on the plan, introduced a motion, which also passed, asking county leaders to convene and present a plan for diversion to the board in June.

Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald said that even if the county jail’s mentally ill population does dramatically drop, that won’t get rid of the county’s need for a new jail.