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County jail plan draws fire from civil rights advocates

City News Service | 7/16/2013, 3:10 p.m.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The Board of Supervisors today considered options for upgrading the county’s aging jail system, but activists ...

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The Board of Supervisors today considered options for upgrading the county’s aging jail system, but activists called for alternatives to incarceration and funding for community-based mental health services.

The board has considered various recommendations to modernize, expand and reconfigure aging and outdated jails over the last six to seven years. But the supervisors have balked at the price tag and raised concerns about the need for and long-term viability of prior plans.

Vanir Construction Management Inc., a consultant hired by the county, presented a requested in-depth analysis of the county’s jail system that focused on the need for mental health services and separate facilities for high-security inmates. They presented five options for modernization ranging in cost from $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion.

The population of mentally ill inmates is expected to grow by 40 to 50 percent over the next five years, according to the Department of Mental Health.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky called mental health facilities at the county’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility a “train wreck” waiting to happen.

"I will never parachute out of an airplane and I will never go back to Twin Towers again voluntarily,” Yaroslavsky said of the conditions in that jail’s mental health facility.

Some activists argued that money should go to community-based mental health treatment and other resources, including post-release programs like job training, rather than to make room for the mentally ill in jails.

Diana Zuniga of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) said she had signatures from more than 1,000 people from 100 different organizations, urging the county not to build any new jails.

But the board said it had little alternative.

"Jails are clearly a necessity,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “But there is a human rights component that cannot be ignored.”

Men’s Central Jail — which would be demolished under all plans — has deteriorated to the point where it cannot operated cost efficiently, according to Vanir’s report. A new jail would be built downtown to house all high- and medium-security inmates and provide for mentally ill criminals.

Vanir forecast that the overall number of inmates should remain fairly flat over the next 30 years, at about 18,500 inmates. A decline in crime overall and other factors are expected to offset the fact that county jails are now housing many inmates once destined for state prisons. As a result, none of the scenarios proposes an increase in the number of jail beds.

The question of where female inmates will be housed is the key variable among the five alternatives. The most expensive option includes housing for women in two locations: a Women’s Village at Pitchess Detention Center and at a modernized Mira Loma Detention Center, formerly used by federal immigration authorities.

The report’s failure to address alternatives to jail time —  like pretrial release, split sentences and diversion into mental health programs — also prompted an outcry from civil rights advocates, who said that the mentally ill and substance abusers were being “warehoused” in county jails.

“This has had a devastating impact on poor black and brown communities,” said Patrisse Cullors of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence.

“We believe that billions of dollars should be poured back into the communities.”

Vanir “is not an authority on looking at alternatives,” said Esther Lim of the Southern California Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “It is an expert at designing jail facilities.”

Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who runs the jail system, stressed to the board that she and Sheriff Lee Baca are already working on alternatives, including a program focused on female inmates.

Supervisor Gloria Molina said if the board was going to spend $1.4 billion to $1.6 billion dollars, she wanted to be sure that convicted criminals would serve a greater percentage of their jail time. Inmates sentenced to county, rather than state, terms typically serve 40 percent of their sentence.

“Right now it’s an arbitrary number and it all has to do with 'we don’t have enough room for you, and you’re on your way,'" Molina said.

The board did not OK any option today, but asked Vanir, the Sheriff’s Department and county attorneys to return with additional information. A report back is expected in 30 days.

Elizabeth Marcellino | City News Service