Facing an FBI investigation into brutality in his jails, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca publicly committed Tuesday to shuttering much of his most problematic lockup, Men's Central Jail, barring some unexpected hike in violent crime.
In the past, Baca has tied the idea of shutting down the troubled downtown Los Angeles facility to the county agreeing to pay for an expensive new jail. The Times reported last month that Baca was now open to shutting down the old section of Men's Central Jail — the epicenter of violent clashes between deputies and inmates — even without that new jail.
Speaking at a news conference outside sheriff's headquarters, Baca stated those plans publicly for the first time Tuesday. He dismissed the idea, however, that he was making the shift because of the intensified scrutiny in recent months of abuse inside his jails.
"Bear with me if it sounds like I'm changing my tune ... investigations and allegations are not bases for rational management decisions," Baca said. "We're not talking here about all of a sudden we've been put in a corner."
Instead, Baca said his new outlook was spurred by a report commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union that found Los Angeles County's jail population could be reduced by, among other measures, increasing the number of inmates who are released back to the public and monitored electronically.
Baca said another development was the opportunity to house some inmates at fire camps that have been used for state prisoners, and moving other inmates to facilities outside the county.
Baca declined to give a timeline for the closure.
For years, Men's Central Jail has been Baca's most troubled lockup, plagued by inmate killings, excessive force by guards and poor supervision. About 1,800 inmates, many of them the county's most violent, would have to be moved to other sheriff's facilities.
If adopted, the plan would solve what has long been a major problem for the department: housing the most violent inmates in an antiquated facility. Men's Central is designed with long rows of cramped cells, rather than the more modern circular configuration that makes controlling inmates, supervising jailers and protecting employees significantly easier.
But closing the section of Men's Central would also reduce the number of total inmates the system can handle. The Sheriff's Department already releases some inmates early because of a lack of funding and is expected to receive thousands of new inmates under a plan that is sending to county jails offenders who previously landed in state prison.
County Supervisor Michael Antonovich warned against shutting down Men's Central without a "comparable replacement," saying such an action would "release criminals into our communities" and make "a mockery of our criminal justice system."