Sybil Brand, 104; Fought for Jailed Women

Times Staff Writers

Sybil Brand, the philanthropist and civic leader for whom the new Los Angeles County jail for women was named in the early 1960s in recognition of her extensive efforts to improve conditions for imprisoned women, has died. She was believed to have been 104.

Brand, who once was characterized in The Times as "a curious mix of soft-hearted generosity and stubborn determination," died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Beverly Hills.

"Sybil really lives up to that old adage of a person who's a legend in her own time," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Wednesday. Citing Brand's long concern for criminal justice, her strong support for law enforcement and her work as "an advocate of human dignity even among those who are incarcerated," Yaroslavsky said Brand "put her money where her mouth was and where her heart was."

"It's a real loss. But we had her for over 100 years -- so not a bad deal for Los Angeles."

Brand joined her first county commission in the mid-1940s and later was appointed to the Vocational Training Commission, which oversaw jails and other facilities. That board evolved into the Institutional Inspections Commission, which was renamed the Sybil Brand Commission for Institutional Inspections by the Board of Supervisors in the 1980s.

As commission chairman, a post she held until her death, Brand continued to conduct inspections of all of the Sheriff's Department, Probation Department and Department of Children and Family Services facilities until about four years ago, when she was no longer physically able to do so.

Paul Byrne, the commission secretary who knew Brand for 34 years and once was her personal secretary, said the inmates, particularly women, were well aware of who Brand was when she made her inspection rounds.

"She said, 'If you have any problems, tell them you want to talk to Sybil directly,' " he recalled Wednesday. "She was that close to the women.

"Whenever she found a problem, she was trying to help anybody she could. She was just a unique human being."

The Sybil Brand Institute for Women closed after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and budget shortfalls have delayed its remodeling and reopening. Women prisoners most recently have been housed in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.

Brand always appreciated the warm greetings she elicited from prisoners during frequent visits to her namesake women's jail.

"They do have a lot of respect for me because they know I care," she told an interviewer in 1986. "Look, if they had our backgrounds, if they had love in the home, respect at home, they wouldn't be begging for love and affection. That's why I scream and yell that the officers have to have respect for them. They cannot treat them like animals."

At the time, Brand was a fixture at numerous charity functions, usually on the arm of longtime friend and actor Cesar Romero after her late husband Harry became incapacitated. He died in 1989.

"She just doesn't turn anything down," Romero said at the time. Describing Brand as a "generous, big-hearted woman," he said: "I keep telling her she doesn't have to go to everything, that she can say no once in a while. She can't say no; that's her makeup."

Among the many charities Brand supported were the Leukemia Foundation, the Braille Institute and the Jeffrey Foundation for Handicapped Children.

Since childhood, Brand told The Times in 1990, she had remembered some parental advice: "My mother always said if I can do one good deed a day, life is worth living."

The daughter of wealthy stockbroker Arthur W. Morris, she was born in Chicago. Exactly when is open to debate. Various sources say she was born anywhere from 1901 to 1903, but she told some friends she was born in 1899. "She always hedged on her age," said Byrne, who believes 1899 to be accurate.

Brand moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was 2. Her first adventure in charity came when she was 5 and a hungry man came to the door. She offered him everything in the kitchen.

By 12, she was sewing diapers for babies in local hospitals from fabric carried home by her father. As a teenager, she organized Christmas activities for young people who were hospitalized.

In 1933, she married Harry Brand, who became head of publicity and advertising at 20th Century Fox. They had one son, George, who also made his career in film.

Already well-known in charity circles, Brand was first named to the Public Welfare Commission in 1945 by then-Supervisor Leonard Roach.

Before applying for the commission opening at the suggestion of one of her husband's friends, Brand had one question: "Do I have to 'yes' everybody? He said no, that's why we want you. I said that's good. If I have to 'yes' people, I can't be honest."

When none of the nine other commissioners volunteered, Brand agreed to oversee jails.

At that time, women inmates in Los Angeles were housed on the 13th floor of the men's jail in the old Hall of Justice. About 1,800 women were crammed into facilities designed for 1,200.

On her first visit, she saw women sleeping on the floor with bugs crawling on them, and she learned they were not allowed to bathe more than once a week.

"I hit the ceiling," she recalled decades later. "I demanded that they be allowed to shower daily. I didn't care what the women did to be there, but I did know that they should be treated like human beings and not be forced to sleep on floors like animals."

She also set about getting the county to rent a former federal prison on Terminal Island for $1 a year to house women inmates.

But she literally turned up her nose at that facility when it turned out to be next to a foul-smelling Star-Kist tuna cannery.

The solution? Build a jail, then-Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess told her.

A noted fundraiser and donor to charities, Brand tried her hand at political fundraising, championing a bond issue on the June 1960 ballot.

The $8-million measure passed easily and provided funds not only for the Sybil Brand Institute -- built in East Los Angeles near City Terrace across the freeway from what is now Cal State L.A. -- but also for a new men's jail and several honor camps.

The Sybil Brand Institute, built to house 915 women but eventually forced to handle more than twice that number, opened in 1963.

Although Brand was considered the proverbial soft touch, she was not soft on hard-core criminals.

She favored capital punishment, but advocated decriminalizing prostitution as a matter of economy.

"We get drunks, prostitutes and the mentally ill in there," she said in 1987. "And I don't think any of those people should be in jail. Being drunk isn't a crime; it's a sickness. And the mentally ill should have somewhere they can go and be cared for. And prostitutes -- they pay their fine and get out and then they're back in again. It costs us a fortune to keep them."

Although Brand had stopped attending commission meetings in recent years, she remained the agency's chairwoman.

"She had a strong will and determination," Byrne said. "She was just a woman who was unbelievable. She was one of a kind. There will never be another Sybil Brand; that's all there is to it."

Brand had no immediate survivors. Plans for a memorial service are pending.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday February 20, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction Sybil Brand -- The obituary of Los Angeles philanthropist and civic leader Sybil Brand that appeared in the California section on Thursday incorrectly gave the name of her father as Arthur W. Morris. His first name was Abraham; he was known as A.W. Morris.
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