Los Angeles County’s Civilian Oversight Commission voted unanimously this week to oppose the construction of a women’s jail in Lancaster, hoping to persuade the Board of Supervisors to reject the plan.
The vote comes two weeks after the board postponed a vote to approve a $215 million budget for Mira Loma Detention Center and award a design-build construction contract to San Fernando Valley-based Bernards Bros. Inc. The matter is expected to be heard next Tuesday.
Funding for the project requires four votes from the five-member board, which collectively agreed to rethink the jail plan. Only Supervisor Sheila Kuehl went so far as to say she would not vote to build on the site—which is roughly 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles—citing “insurmountable obstacles.”
Supervisor Hilda Solis said changes would need to be made to the plan before she would support it, citing her commitment to finding strategies that encourage family reunification and lower recidivism rates.
The chair of the watchdog commission said many members were troubled by a location so far from inmates’ families.
“We are also concerned that there was no plan for creating gender-responsive programming. Women are being incarcerated in record numbers, and their needs are different than men’s,” chair Patti Giggans said in a statement. “We need to understand the needs of women the Sheriff’s Department has in custody and develop programming that can help them build healthy and stable lives when they are released. We question if the Mira Loma proposal isthe best plan or use of money.”
The commission acknowledged that the county could lose $100 million in state grants if it backs away from the Lancaster site, which was once an immigration detention center. But it said the potential loss was warranted given the county’s “commitment to diversion, education, mental health and rehabilitative programming.’
Criminal justice advocates have also pointed to the election of a new sheriff as a potential turning point in the county’s jails plan. Sheriff Alex Villanueva has talked about reducing the jail population and finding alternatives to incarceration and many advocates of reform see him as a potential ally.
“We have a sheriff who does not want to build and that is unprecedented,” Mark-Anthony Johnson of Dignity & Power Now told the board two weeks ago, after thanking them for “challenging the conventional wisdom that this was just a done deal.”
Villanueva is reportedly working on alternatives to discuss with the board and has said he understands the need to keep families together. But it’s not clear whether the board and the sheriff are willing to go as far as criminal justice advocates would like. For activists, it isn’t simply a question of where the jail is built, but whether a jail should be built at all. Many have urged the board to redirect construction dollars to diverting inmates into community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment programs and spending on other community resources.
The commission’s resolution states it will urge the board to reject the women’s jail at Mira Loma, but does not speak to the larger issue of whether a new women’s jail is needed.
A vote by the Board of Supervisors is also pending to award a contract for a $2.2 billion Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility planned to replace the crowded, decrepit Men’s Central Jail, spurred in part by the county’s needs to comply with the needs of suicidal and mentally ill inmates.