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Baca’s jail plan gets ACLU’s support

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has an unusual ally in his plans to manage the nation’s largest jail system -- the American Civil Liberties Union.

Melinda Bird, senior counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, said she planned to tell the Board of Supervisors today that she supported Baca’s proposal to demolish the outdated, overcrowded Men’s Central Jail and build a new jail in its place.

Bird said the county should consider reducing the number of inmates held in the county’s six jails -- about 19,000 a day -- by using alternatives such as home detention or residential treatment for those who are addicted to drugs or mentally ill. If the county slashes the number of inmates in custody, Bird said, it could replace Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles with a smaller and less expensive facility. That would make more sense than spending tens of millions of dollars to refurbish the jail, she said.

Baca estimated that building a new downtown jail could cost between $500 million and $800 million.

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The existing jail, which opened in 1963, has been plagued by poor electrical, plumbing and ventilation systems, and a design that makes it difficult for guards to keep close watch on inmates. The jail was the scene of a string of inmate homicides in 2004 that led an independent monitor to call for its closure. A federal judge described conditions at the jail as “inconsistent with basic human values.”

“We need a new, modern jail,” Bird said. “It may not cost as much as you think. . . . We will be fine with a far smaller jail than we have now. If you’re talking a smaller facility, then Baca’s plan to demolish and build a new facility makes perfect sense. It’s only if you say you have to rebuild 6,000 beds that it becomes prohibitively expensive.”

The ACLU has said the jail’s 3,800 inmates are not given enough time and space to exercise and that many of them are denied adequate medical and mental health treatment.

The problem with the jail, Bird said, “is the way it was built and designed. It’s an antiquated facility and it cannot be repaired. It’s filthy. It’s a linear design, which was outmoded 20 years ago.”

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County supervisors are expected to consider what to do with Men’s Central Jail next year.

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com


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