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L.A. Supervisors agree to act on billion-dollar jail renovation

Concerned about possible federal intervention into the operation of Los Angeles County's system of jails, the Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to take a significant step toward replacing the Men’s Central Jail and renovating other facilities to reduce crowding and increase mental-health services for prisoners.

The five-member board voted unanimously to accept a report from consultants who outlined five options. All included tearing down and replacing the Men’s Central Jail and reconfiguring other existing facilities.

The number of jail beds would be unchanged, but the design changes would decrease crowding, while increasing access to care for the mentally ill and drug and alcohol addicts. Design changes would also create safer facilities, with guards better able to monitor the inmates, said Rob Nash, an architect with Vanir Construction Management.

The board agreed to revisit the matter in four weeks. In the meantime, county officials were directed to answer questions about the cost of existing operations, amend the agreement with Vanir so the firm can begin analyzing staffing and operational costs for the various proposals, and find out whether the county can use a $100-million state grant earmarked for Pitchess Detention Center on other jail projects.

Supervisors were weary of the $1.3-billion to $1.6-billion price tag -- if approved, the jail overhaul would be the county’s largest building project ever. But they were more concerned about jail conditions prompting the federal government to try to gain oversight of the facilities that comprise the nation's largest jail system.

They repeatedly pointed to a similar dilemma facing state officials, who were ordered by federal judges earlier this year to release 9,600 prisoners or find another cure for overcrowding that was resulting in inmates getting inadequate medical care.

Supervisor Gloria Molina expressed concerns that some of the county’s jails exceed crowding limits imposed on state prisons by federal courts.

“I think that that’s a real threat and I think it would be a mistake not to think it’s a real threat,” she said during Tuesday’s meeting. “While we are concerned about the cost here -- which is a big cost -- it is also a concern as to how much it is going to cost us if we were to get into a legal liability situation or find ourselves in a very similar situation to the state.”

Dozens of protesters objected, chanting outside the board chambers, standing with their backs to the supervisors during the meeting, and urging them during the public-comment period to use the money to fund community-based treatment rather than new jail space.

"We are adamantly against any jailing of people who have mental health issues," said Patrisse Cullors, lead organizer with the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails.

Cullors said her brother, who has Schizoaffective disorder, was a victim of brutality while in downtown Los Angeles' Twin Towers jail facility.

"From 19 to 34, he's been in and out of prison, and I blame that wholeheartedly on the L.A. County jail system and its inability to provide services," she said.

Board chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas told the crowd that the county is spending money on community-based treatment, but had an obligation to fix its jails.

“Jails are clearly a necessity," Ridley-Thomas said. "The extent of what those jails are is another matter for debate. But there is a human rights component that cannot be ignored with respect to what jails look like and what services they are legally obliged to afford.

“The important point to stay focused on is the County of Los Angeles does not, should not and will not be put in the position of the State of California, with respect to the state prison system in terms of court intervention controlling and directing how our resources are extended.”

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Twitter: @LATSeema | @sewella

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