County officials unveiled a plan Tuesday to replace Men’s Central Jail with a correctional facility designed to offer integrated medical, mental health and substance abuse treatment, but voted to halt work on all pending jail projects for 45 days while awaiting further study.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she agreed with what she characterized as a “tectonic shift” in the county’s approach to incarceration. But she questioned whether more individuals could be treated in community-based facilities rather than jail and called for an independent study of community capacity.
“Nothing has shown me why 3,900 people at a time must be in this correctional facility and not be treated somewhere elsewhere,” Kuehl said. She said work on the project should be suspended until the study is completed.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell led off the update on the jails plan to the Board of Supervisors by reminding everyone that he served on the 2011-2012 Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, where he “learned firsthand how a correctional system can become unhealthy and toxic.”
McDonnell and his co-presenters from the departments of Public Health, Mental Health and Health Services all stressed that the Sheriff’s Department is focused on diversion programs for low-risk offenders.
The new facility should be “part of a community-based system in which we divert as many people as possible,” said Department of Mental Health Director Marvin Southard. But that doesn’t eliminate the need to upgrade dilapidated, outmoded jails, McDonnell and Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald said.
“We must replace Men’s Central Jail. No one can disagree with that starting point,” McDonnell said.
Supervisor Hilda Solis called the jail, which was built in 1963, “despicable” and “inhumane.”
Dr. Mitchell Katz, who heads the county’s hospital system, agreed, telling the board, “The current jail is not the right setting to do treatment programs … (it) makes things worse.”
Supervisor Michael Antonovich warned that if the county didn’t act, the federal government might step in and take over, saying conditions at Men’s Central represent “a violation of civil rights and safety factors for the employees and the inmates.”
The proposed $1.8-$2 billion replacement facility, planned for a 2017 construction start and a first phase of occupancy in 2021, would have 3,928 beds, including 200 high-security beds. Every one of those beds would be for an inmate receiving healthcare, mental health or substance abuse treatment.
Even as the population of inmates declines, the percentage of mentally ill inmates is on the rise in Los Angeles County and across the country. Those individuals are more severely ill than ever, according to Southard.
The Sheriff’s Department and DMH reached out to community-based service providers with funding for mental health services and McDonald said providers responded with less than 300 beds of capacity.
However, community and civil rights advocates argued that the best solution for the mentally ill would be to get them out of jail and that more capacity could be generated if the county stepped up with funding.
“(The Department of Justice) has said clearly … that reducing the population of inmates with mental health problems in the jails is the best way that this county can meet its obligations to the DOJ’s mandates,” said Peter Eliasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
The board has already approved a $123 million women’s detention facility at the Mira Loma Detention Center, once run by federal immigration officials.
Antonovich said the timeline for the two projects had been linked by agreement of the 2014 board, which didn’t include Kuehl or Solis, and pushed for a vote to suspend work on both projects if work was halted on the Men’s Central Jail, apparently hoping to get Kuehl to back down.
As construction costs are rising, interim CEO Sachi Hamai said the 45- day delay could potentially cost millions of dollars.
Supervisor Don Knabe tried to strike a compromise for work to proceed while the study was underway, saying none of the near-term work would dictate the facility’s ultimate size. He reminded the board that the project to replace Men’s Central has been debated for years.
“At some point we’re going to have to make a decision about size and scope,” Knabe said.
Only Antonovich voted against seeking an independent study.
Kuehl’s motion to suspend work on Men’s Central Jail for 45 days passed 3-2, with Antonovich and Knabe dissenting.
Antonovich’s motion to then also suspend work on Mira Loma for 45 days passed 3-2, with Kuehl and Solis dissenting.
— City News Service
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