Pushing back against months of opposition, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote Tuesday to approve spending $2.2 billion to replace the nonfunctional downtown Men’s Central Jail with a combination clinic and jail facility.
The final environmental impact report is set to be certified, paving the way to move forward with conceptual designs for what is dubbed the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility.
The goal is to accommodate a growing number of mentally ill inmates — currently pegged at about 30 percent of the total jail population — as well as individuals in need of medical and substance abuse treatment.
Custody officials and members of the board say the new facility is critical to overall justice reform.
Cmdr. Joseph Dempsey of the sheriff’s custody services division says it is nearly impossible to comply with all the provisions of various court-monitored settlement agreements — aimed at reducing jail violence and preventing inmate suicides — without rebuilding.
“MCJ (is) an aging, decrepit facility that is falling apart structurally,” Dempsey said while escorting reporters on a tour through the jails last week. “It becomes unsafe for inmates and it becomes unsafe for staff.”
The problem with Men’s Central starts with its outdated 1960s-era infrastructure, cramped, windowless cells with green metal bars and a building that lacks the space to do much more than warehouse inmates in an era that calls for educational, recreational and other programming.
Deputies can’t see inside the cells until they are right in front of them, making it tough to check on inmates. There’s a small space in the back of the dark one-man cells — about half the size of a residential shower stall — where inmates are completely hidden from sight, increasing the risk of suicides.
Most mentally ill inmates are housed at Twin Towers Correctional Facility, which has become a “de facto mental health facility,” Dempsey said, but that ’90s-era structure was built for general population and maximum security inmates and is “a horribly designed jail for mentally ill inmates.”
Inmates at Twin Towers undergo mental health evaluations in a large, noisy, open space. Some of those being assessed are chained to metal stools and far enough away from clinicians that they have to shout to explain their condition and concerns. Other high-risk inmates wearing quilted protective suicide gowns sit around the perimeter in glass-walled housing pods, chained by the wrist to tables.
“This wasn’t built for this,” said Timothy Belavich, program director for correctional health services, looking forward to a new facility with room for confidential conversations.
Once the CCTF is built, Twin Towers will be used to house inmates from the general population.
Many advocates for the mentally ill and justice reform argue that individuals with mental illness can never be effectively treated in jail and will only grow worse, even in a state-of-the-art setting. They say the county should not spend $2 billion on a new jail — which some predict will ultimately grow to $3.5 billion based on cost overruns — but instead scale back those plans and divert dollars to grow the number of community treatment beds available for mentally ill offenders.
“Los Angeles County cannot claim to value the safety and well-being of black and brown families while spending $3.5 billion on jail construction,” said Mark Anthony Johnson of JusticeLA, calling last December for the county to “divest from sheriff’s, probation and jails and invest in what works — housing, community-based mental health care and jobs.”
The county team doesn’t disagree that more should be done in the community but Dempsey said, “The vast majority of these individuals are not going to qualify for a community bed. The court’s not going to place them in a community bed based on their violence or the level of crimes that they commit.”
JusticeLA disagrees, estimating that 63 percent of the county’s jail population would be better served by a community-based alternative.
Roughly 90 percent of the inmates in the county jail system are awaiting trial on felony charges or convicted of a felony, though a breakdown of violent and non-violent felonies was not readily available.
Backers of a ballot measure to give the Civilian Oversight Commission the authority to study ways to reduce the jail population and reinvest jail dollars into prevention and mental health treatment have drawn the support of high-profile names like actress and activist Jane Fonda and singer-songwriter John Legend.
“L.A. is home to the largest jail system in the world and it’s time for us to change that,” Legend said.
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