The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted this week to scrap plans for a women’s jail in Lancaster and approved a new vision for a downtown mental health treatment center, though many criminal justice advocates worried that it might only be a jail by another name.
The board room was filled with roughly 150 activists, the vast majority in orange T-shirts identifying them as supporters of JusticeLA. The back of the shirts read: “Can’t get well in a cell.”
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl was among the board members who credited activists with shifting the tide on jail construction by continuing to push the issue year after year, telling the crowd, “I want the advocates to really understand what a change they have created.”
Dignity & Power Now, the Youth Justice Coalition and a host of other grassroots organizations, many coming together as JusticeLA, have shown up in force, year after year, to tell the board that billions in construction dollars should instead be spent on diversion programs and other resources to keep people out of jail.
Votes were scheduled to award design-build contracts for a $215 million women’s jail at Mira Loma Detention Center and for a $2.2 billion Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility to replace Men’s Central Jail.
Kuehl proposed an alternative, asking her colleagues to ditch plans for Mira Loma. Advocates had long argued that building a jail roughly 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles would put women—many of whom would be awaiting trial rather than convicted of any crime—too far from their families and other support networks.
The board vote was 4-0 to pay $150,000 each to two construction companies that bid on the Lancaster job and cancel the project, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger abstaining. The board unanimously called for a report back on alternative locations, which could include renovating Century Regional Detention Facility.
Staffers were also directed to work with state officials to see if they can redirect $100 million in grant money committed to the Lancaster project site.
Instead of CCTF, Supervisors Janice Hahn and Mark Ridley-Thomas recommended a mental health treatment center, calling it part of the county’s vision for reducing the jail population. As proposed, it would be run by the Department of Health Services and staffed by the Department of Mental Health. Directors of those departments stressed that a “care first” philosophy wouldbe followed.
“The truth is, we do not need a new jail,” Hahn said.
However, advocates worried that it would just be a jail dressed up as a hospital. Dozens called for a decentralized, community-based clinical service model, with five separate treatment centers countywide.
That kind of continuum of care would help build local capacity for the kind of care the board and Mental Health Director Dr. Jonathan Sherin say they want to offer, activists said.
As planned at a maximum of 3,885 beds, the facility would be three times the size of the state’s largest mental health hospital.
“You cannot provide good mental health care in a facility built for 4,000 people. It’s preposterous,” Peter Eliasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California told the board.
Just what role custody officials in the downtown mental health center would have was also not immediately clear, though county CEO Sachi Hamai envisioned a “small door” where inmates might enter a locked-down facility and a “larger door” where other offenders could access mental health and substance abuse treatment.