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Opinion

Editorial: L.A. County needs to seriously rethink the Mira Loma women’s jail

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Bars at an L.A. County jail facility.
(Los Angeles Times)

The criminal justice system was built for men — men’s bodies, men’s psyches, men’s problems. But the fastest-growing contingent of jail and prison inmates is women. They are housed in institutions not built with them in mind and are guarded by officers untrained to meet their needs and challenges. They are more likely than men to suffer from mental illness or drug addiction, and far more likely to have been victims of sexual or physical abuse. More than half of incarcerated women have children, and one study after another demonstrates that they will do better during and after their time in jail with frequent visits from their kids — yet women’s jails are often built in remote locations, so the trip to visit them is too long and too costly.

Women inmates simply need different quarters, designed for different needs and different programs, than men.

The concept should be obvious to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which spent years studying juvenile probation programs before demolishing and rebuilding Campus Kilpatrick, a former barracks-style probation camp that now is tailor-made for rehabilitation, mentoring, counseling and treatment of juvenile offenders. The board wisely saw that it needed the programming and the building design to be complementary. The same logic holds true for adult female jail inmates.

Women inmates simply need different quarters, designed for different needs and different programs, than men.
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This particular board is uniquely qualified to grasp the special needs of women, including inmates. Four of the five supervisors are women — a historic development following 164 years of exclusively male or majority male boards. Two years ago, almost immediately after the new female majority was seated, the board launched a Women and Girls Initiative to finally deal with the inequities that undermine the lives of the county’s female residents of all ages, in all circumstances — including, presumably, in jail.

Now the promise to focus on women faces its first real test. Early in the new year, the board is set to consider a contract to build a new women’s jail on the site of the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster. Oddly, it’s a product of more male-oriented criminal justice thinking.

Mira Loma is the kind of place you’d put a jail a quarter-century ago — and in fact that’s when the adjacent state prison opened. The operating principle of California prison construction during the incarceration boom of the 1980s to early 2000s was to lock up offenders in the desert, far away from the rest of us.

But it’s an outmoded approach to a women’s jail, where 65% of inmates haven’t even been convicted of anything, where young mothers need visits from their kids during an especially stressful time, and where inmates who have been abused or terrorized by their male partners and who have turned to drugs for escape need regular face time with qualified clinicians and counselors on site— not video images broadcast from downtown L.A. because the commute is too onerous.

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A car trip from Long Beach or Pomona to Mira Loma takes up to two hours each way, and a trip by public transit? Forget it. You simply can’t get there and back in the same day.

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The Mira Loma plan, if “plan” is the right word, calls for a jail in the wrong place, with buildings designed and constructed with too little regard for their use. The county seems determined to move forward chiefly because it won a state grant several years ago to pay for the project, and it doesn’t want to lose the money. But authorizing construction would be like buying a shoe only because someone else offered to pay for it. What’s the point, if you have to cut off a toe to make it fit? You fit the shoe to the foot, not the other way around. You fit the building — and the location — to the programming need.

A comprehensive women’s criminal justice plan would obviously take into consideration the need to punish crimes appropriately, but should also include an aggressive effort to divert young women from jail and into treatment — or shelters where they could seek refuge from their abusers — within an easy commute from their homes. It would include a study of the effect on the female inmate population of SB 10, the bail reform law set to take effect later this year. It would include regular transit connections or free shuttles for service providers and families.

The Board of Supervisors must not make a mockery of its commitment to better the lives of women and girls. It should reconsider the location of its new jail. And if it won’t do that, it should at least not approve construction until it hires consultants to think through a plan for programs. It would be foolish to build new buildings before figuring out how big they need to be and what they need to include.

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