Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to pull back a plan to rebuild the aging Men’s Central Jail and reassess the number of beds needed in a new facility.
Sheriff's officials, who manage Men's Central as part of the nation's largest jail system, worried that a delay could hurt their ability to obtain state money for the new central jail and other necessary jail reconstruction projects.
A divided board voted last year to move forward with a $2-billion Men's Central replacement plan that included building a new two-tower, 4,860-bed jail geared toward high-security inmates and those with mental health and other medical and substance abuse issues. The county has paid about $6 million to contractor AECOM for work on the jail plan to date.
County officials agree that the conditions in the current central jail are abysmal and that the facility must be replaced. But they disagree about the scale. Advocates who want to reduce incarceration have pushed the board to scrap or downsize the jail plan, saying the population will be substantially reduced by diversion efforts and Proposition 47, which reduced the sentences for many drug and property crimes.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas proposed halting the planning for 45 days, saying the county needs to look more carefully at how many more low-level offenders, particularly those with mental health issues, can be diverted from jail.
“The state of the jail system in Los Angeles County is deplorable — there’s no way around that,” Ridley-Thomas said. But he said, “What we do has to be done responsibly and I think it has to be done holistically.”
The move represents another significant change in direction by the newly configured board since Kuehl and Supervisor Hilda Solis took office in December.
“We shouldn’t have to rush to build something that the prior board agreed upon when I wasn’t here,” said Solis, who joined Kuehl and Ridley-Thomas in voting to suspend work on the new Men's Central Jail.
The jail’s population has long exceeded its capacity. But the number of inmates jumped from about 14,000 in mid-2011 to 19,000 after the state moved to ease its own prison overcrowding by shifting responsibility for locking up nonviolent felons to county jailers. But since Proposition 47 reduced some inmate sentences late last year, the numbers have dipped. The jail’s population now stands at about 17,000, including about 3,500 inmates who are mentally ill.
Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and local advocacy group Dignity and Power Now, who have pushed for a halt to the jail plan, wrote in a letter to the board, “It is hard to imagine anything more wasteful and more harmful to the county’s long-term economic health than investing billions of dollars in jail facilities that will be underutilized.”
Sheriff’s officials said delays could jeopardize state funding, including $100 million for a new “campus-like” women’s jail at the now-vacant Mira Loma Detention Center, intended to replace the current overcrowded women's facility in Lynwood. The women's jail is tied to the Men's Central Jail as part of the county’s overall jail construction plan.
They proposed instead that supervisors move forward with a scaled-down plan that would replace the central jail with a 3,900-bed facility geared entirely toward the treatment of inmates with mental health and substance abuse needs.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell said it remains to be seen what the effect of the delay might be.
“From my perspective, the sooner we can move forward and replace Men’s Central Jail, the better off we will be as a county,” he said.
Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe, who voted against halting work on the Men's Central Jail plan, voiced fears that a delay could mean that the federal government — which has been heavily scrutinizing the county’s jail system — would move in and take over the project.
Also Tuesday, the supervisors voted to reorganize the way healthcare is provided to jail inmates in hopes of giving them better-coordinated care. Currently, the sheriff’s Medical Services Bureau, with a $238-million budget and 1,700 employees, coordinates medical services in the jails. The county departments of health services, mental health and public health also work in the jails providing various services including mental health and substance abuse treatment and screening for sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis.
Under the new plan, all those services will be run by the county Department of Health Services, with a correctional health director set up to manage the programs.
Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county news.