Su­per­vi­sors vote to re­assess scope of Men’s Cen­tral Jail

The de­ci­sion to halt an up­grade plan rep­re­sents an­other shift in di­rec­tion for the county board.

Los Angeles Times - - LOS ANGELES - By Abby Sewell abby.sewell@la­ Twit­ter: @sewella

Los An­ge­les County su­per­vi­sors voted Tues­day to pull back a plan to rebuild the aging Men’s Cen­tral Jail and re­assess the num­ber of beds needed in a new fa­cil­ity.

Sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials, who man­age Men’s Cen­tral as part of the na­tion’s largest jail sys­tem, wor­ried that a de­lay could hurt their abil­ity to ob­tain state money for the new cen­tral jail and other nec­es­sary jail re­con­struc­tion projects.

A di­vided board voted last year to move for­ward with a $2-bil­lion Men’s Cen­tral re­place­ment plan that in­cluded build­ing a new twotower, 4,860-bed jail geared to­ward high-se­cu­rity in­mates and those with men­tal health and other med­i­cal and sub­stance abuse is­sues. The county has paid about $6 mil­lion to con­trac­tor AECOM for work on the jail plan to date.

County of­fi­cials agree that the con­di­tions in the cur­rent cen­tral jail are abysmal and that the fa­cil­ity must be re­placed. But they dis­agree about the scale. Ad­vo­cates who want to re­duce incarceration have pushed the board to scrap or down­size the jail plan, say­ing the pop­u­la­tion will be sub­stan­tially re­duced by di­ver­sion ef­forts and Propo­si­tion 47, which re­duced the sen­tences for many drug and prop­erty crimes.

Su­per­vi­sors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ri­d­ley-Thomas pro­posed halt­ing the plan­ning for 45 days, say­ing the county needs to look more care­fully at how many more low-level of­fend­ers, par­tic­u­larly those with men­tal health is­sues, can be di­verted from jail.

“The state of the jail sys­tem in Los An­ge­les County is de­plorable — there’s no way around that,” Ri­d­ley-Thomas said. But he said, “What we do has to be done re­spon­si­bly and I think it has to be done holis­ti­cally.”

The move rep­re­sents an­other sig­nif­i­cant change in di­rec­tion by the newly con­fig­ured board since Kuehl and Su­per­vi­sor Hilda So­lis took of­fice in De­cem­ber.

“We shouldn’t have to rush to build some­thing that the prior board agreed upon when I wasn’t here,” said So­lis, who joined Kuehl and Ri­d­ley-Thomas in vot­ing to sus­pend work on the new Men’s Cen­tral Jail.

The jail’s pop­u­la­tion has long ex­ceeded its ca­pac­ity. But the num­ber of in­mates jumped from about 14,000 in mid-2011 to 19,000 af­ter the state moved to ease its own pri­son over­crowd­ing by shift­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for lock­ing up non­vi­o­lent felons to county jail­ers. But since Propo­si­tion 47 re­duced some in­mate sen­tences late last year, the num­bers have dipped. The jail’s pop­u­la­tion now stands at about 17,000, in­clud­ing about 3,500 in­mates who are men­tally ill.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and lo­cal ad­vo­cacy group Dig­nity and Power Now, who have pushed for a halt to the jail plan, wrote in a let­ter to the board, “It is hard to imag­ine any­thing more waste­ful and more harm­ful to the county’s longterm eco­nomic health than in­vest­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in jail fa­cil­i­ties that will be un­der­uti­lized.”

Sher­iff ’s of­fi­cials said de­lays could jeop­ar­dize state fund­ing, in­clud­ing $100 mil­lion for a new “cam­pus-like” women’s jail at the now-va­cant Mira Loma Detention Cen­ter, in­tended to re­place the cur­rent over­crowded women’s fa­cil­ity in Lyn­wood. The women’s jail is tied to the Men’s Cen­tral Jail as part of the county’s over­all jail con­struc­tion plan.

They pro­posed in­stead that su­per­vi­sors move for­ward with a scaled-down plan that would re­place the cen­tral jail with a 3,900-bed fa­cil­ity geared en­tirely to­ward the treat­ment of in­mates with men­tal health and sub­stance abuse needs.

Sher­iff Jim McDon­nell said it re­mains to be seen what the ef­fect of the de­lay might be.

“From my per­spec­tive, the sooner we can move for­ward and re­place Men’s Cen­tral Jail, the bet­ter off we will be as a county,” he said.

Su­per­vi­sors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Kn­abe, who voted against halt­ing work on the Men’s Cen­tral Jail plan, voiced fears that a de­lay could mean that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment — which has been heav­ily scru­ti­niz­ing the county’s jail sys­tem — would move in and take over the project.

Also Tues­day, the su­per­vi­sors voted to re­or­ga­nize the way health­care is pro­vided to jail in­mates in hopes of giv­ing them bet­ter-co­or­di­nated care. Cur­rently, the sher­iff ’s Med­i­cal Ser­vices Bureau, with a $238-mil­lion bud­get and 1,700 em­ploy­ees, co­or­di­nates med­i­cal ser­vices in the jails. The county de­part­ments of health ser­vices, men­tal health and public health also work in the jails pro­vid­ing var­i­ous ser­vices in­clud­ing men­tal health and sub­stance abuse treat­ment and screen­ing for sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis.

Un­der the new plan, all those ser­vices will be run by the county Depart­ment of Health Ser­vices, with a cor­rec­tional health direc­tor set up to man­age the pro­grams.

Pho­tog raphs by Anne Cu­sack Los An­ge­les Times

BRANDY BROWN with the Youth Jus­tice Coali­tion car­ries her daugh­ter, De­sire, af­ter speak­ing against the plan to re­vamp the county jail on Tues­day. Of­fi­cials agree that con­di­tions at the jail are abysmal and need to be fixed, but they dis­agree on the scale.

SHER­IFF Jim McDon­nell said it re­mains to be seen what the ef­fect of the de­lay will be, but depart­ment of­fi­cials worry that a de­lay could put state funds at risk.

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