As Los Angeles County struggles to deal with rampant jail overcrowding, elected leaders took steps Tuesday to build a new women's jail in Lancaster but appeared on the verge of canceling a plan to ship 500 long-term inmates to a facility in Kern County.
The $75-million contract to send inmates to Taft was contentious when the board approved it in a 3-2 vote in late September. On Tuesday, Supervisor Gloria Molina said she no longer supported it and asked that it be reconsidered at next week's Board of Supervisors meeting.
Molina said she had changed her mind about the contract after learning that there was ongoing litigation between the state and the city of Taft over the jail the county planned to use.
"The last thing L.A. County needs is to be in the middle of two warring parties," she said in an interview, adding that she was upset that the supervisors had not been apprised of the litigation before they voted on the contract.
"I'm very disappointed with all the folks involved in this," she said.
The Taft facility was previously used to house state inmates, but has stood empty since the California Department of Corrections terminated its lease in 2011. Taft sued the state in August 2012, in an attempt to get back more than $500,000 in unemployment benefits paid to former employees after the facility closed. The city also sought to bar the state from exercising a contract clause that would have given it the right to lease the facility for $1 a year after 2017.
Representatives of the Los Angeles County attorneys' office, Taft and the state department of corrections did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday.
Molina said that finding additional jail beds and ensuring that serious offenders serve their full terms remain a priority, but that she now believed the county should not move forward until a consulting firm completes its work on a comprehensive jail plan.
That construction plan, projected to cost $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion, would be the county's largest building project ever, and would include tearing down and replacing the cornerstone of the nation's largest jail system — the Men's Central Jail — and reconfiguring other facilities.
However, supervisors did vote Tuesday to move forward with plans for a 1,604-bed women's jail at the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster.
. Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald said the primary women's facility in Lynwood is at 160% capacity, resulting in widespread early releases for county prisoners. If sentences are 90 days or less, inmates are processed and sent on their way. The majority of the remainder serves 10% of their sentences, while a small number convicted of more serious crimes serve 40%, she said.
Supervisors had previously planned to build a smaller facility at Pitchess Detention Center, but Mira Loma became available because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement stopped using it. Moving the proposed women's facility to Mira Loma enables the county to build more beds at a lower cost.
At least two additional votes must take place before final approval is granted for the construction of the $110-million facility, but Tuesday's vote was necessary so the county can retain a $100-million grant it received from the state earmarked for building a women's jail, and seek an additional $80 million in state money for the design and construction of a proposed "reentry" facility for female prisoners completing their sentences.
The move was approved on a 4-0 vote, with board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas abstaining after expressing concern that by moving forward to retain the grant, the board was in effect committing to the project before the comprehensive jail plan is complete.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that while he understood some of Ridley-Thomas' concerns, he believed that this component of the jails overhaul plan was a "no brainer" and said that it would irresponsible for the county to leave $100 million in state funds sitting on the table.