A controversial women’s jail project that has been in development for years is now facing serious opposition from key stakeholders who are demanding more therapeutic alternatives for women in Los Angeles County’s criminal justice system.
The $215-million proposal to renovate an out-of-use detention facility in the high-desert city of Lancaster, which once housed immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally, has gone through several rounds of approvals since it was launched under prior leadership in 2013 to address jail overcrowding.
But the project is coming under new scrutiny by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, a body in which four of the five members are women. A reconsideration of the plan also comes at a time when many policymakers across the nation are moving to depopulate jails and stop building new ones.
At a meeting Tuesday, each of the supervisors said they wanted to reevaluate the jail plan, marking a dramatic shift in the county’s priorities and opening the door for the project to be overhauled or scrapped altogether.
“This is a new Board of Supervisors and we see things differently,” said Chairwoman Janice Hahn. “The collective will of the board was to put the brakes on, step back, and reassess.”
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who represents western parts of the county, led the charge in opposing the 1,600-bed Mira Loma Women’s Detention Center project, saying there are “insurmountable obstacles” to creating a facility tailored to the needs of women.
“There is nowhere for the women to visit with their families or kids, there’s no special consideration for pregnant women, and it’s so far away that families can’t get there,” Kuehl said of the proposed site, which is about 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
About 40 women in the county jail system are pregnant, said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida. The department doesn’t keep statistics on how many inmates are mothers, but national research shows a majority of incarcerated women have children under the age of 18.
Kuehl said about half of the women in the county jail system haven’t been convicted of a crime and are being held because they can’t afford bail, with many of them accused of nonviolent offenses such as shoplifting.
The board approved a request by Kuehl to delay a vote on awarding a design-and-construction contract for at least two weeks. The county has already spent about $8 million on the project.
Supervisor Hilda Solis said she also opposes the plan for the Mira Loma facility and voiced concerns about the effects on women and children if the jail is located far from Los Angeles’ core.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes Lancaster, floated the idea of finding a new site near downtown Los Angeles and said jail construction plans should incorporate education, job training, and other components to make the system sustainable for many years.
In 2015, Kuehl and Solis moved to establish a Gender Responsive Advisory Board that would create proposals to ensure that the Mira Loma facility would offer high-quality rehabilitation for women. Though the committee, run by the Sheriff’s Department, has held meetings, Kuehl said no recommendations have been offered.
Hahn and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas also signaled they want to explore alternatives.
“The status quo is fundamentally unacceptable. The constitutional rights of individuals are at stake,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Much of the focus over the years has been on fixing the dilapidated Men’s Central Jail and addressing mental health care for inmates. The Mira Loma plan was bundled with other jail reforms and was tied to $100 million in state funding.
Recently elected Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva spoke out against new jail construction on the campaign trail.
Nishida, the Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman, said Villanueva “doesn’t want to put the entire female population [at Mira Loma] and understands the need to keep families intact.”
About 2,000 women in the L.A. County jail system are currently held at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, which was built in 1995 for male inmates and is considered outdated.
The Mira Loma facility first opened in 1945 as a vocational school for juvenile offenders. It was later used for female inmates before the county rented it out to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1997 for use as an immigrant detention center. The facility, which has capacity for 880 beds, has been vacant since 2012.
The plan before the board would involve housing women in barracks that contain 64 beds each. The proposal calls for a campus-style facility where residents could participate in education, vocational training, substance abuse therapy, mental health counseling and work programs.
But critics, including some who have advocated against new jail construction for years, say they haven’t seen concrete plans for how the social service programs would work. They say the long trek to Mira Loma would be impractical for most families, and that the proposed use of video conferencing is no substitute for in-person visits.
“Video visitation takes the humanity out of it. We’ve all done Skype interviews and know that sometimes there are issues with connectivity,” said Esther Lim, the jails project director at the ACLU of Southern California. “I think it’s cruel.”
Marisa Arrona, a director with Californians for Safety and Justice, a jail reform advocacy organization, said research on incarceration shows that community-based supervision and reentry programs reduce recidivism more effectively than jail time does. She also called for scrapping the jail plan.
Some community members have raised concerns that the Mira Loma facility would expose women to valley fever, a fungal infection that causes flu-like symptoms and has been known to affect the Antelope Valley.
Lex Steppling, the director of campaigns and policy at Dignity And Power Now, a group that advocates for inmates and their families, said valley fever is a serious problem. His organization wants jail funds to be rerouted to the county Office of Diversion and Reentry and to community organizations that already provide services to people transitioning to life outside jail.
“One thing L.A. County has going for it is there is already infrastructure that just needs to be scaled up,” Steppling said.
No one at Tuesday’s meeting spoke in favor of the Mira Loma jail plan.