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Irvine council opposes controversial Musick jail expansion, calls for county to hold public forum

The James A. Musick jail near Irvine, Calif.
The James A. Musick jail near Irvine, Calif.
(File Photo | Los Angeles Times)

Irvine’s decades-long fight to stop the expansion of the controversial James A. Musick jail is not over yet.

The Irvine City Council voted Tuesday night to put pressure on the county Board of Supervisors to hold a public meeting on the issue. The board approved a $261-million construction contract for the expansion last year.

The item was proposed by Mayor Farrah Khan and Vice Mayor Tammy Kim at the urging of the Stop the Musick Coalition, a group of social justice organizations in Orange County working to halt the expansion.

“Unfortunately we’ve reached a point where we’ve exhausted all legal resources or all legal avenues to stop the county of Orange from pushing through with this expansion,” Kim said at the meeting. “But I agree that a resolution affirming our strong opposition to this expansion will demonstrate our values as a city. And furthermore, I hope this resolution will send a strong message to the Orange County Board of Supervisors by urging them to hold a public meeting to address the concerns of our residents, whom they were elected to serve.”

The council initially discussed the Musick facility in mid-April after the coalition requested it. The coalition specifically chose to get the city of Irvine involved due to its history with the facility.

City leaders over the years have taken issue with the jail’s proximity to residential neighborhoods, the Orange County Great Park and Portola High School and has filed four unsuccessful lawsuits on the matter.

At the mid-April council meeting, the council seemed to conclude that there wasn’t much the city could do because it doesn’t have land-use authority over the jail, which sits on county property surrounded by Irvine and Lake Forest. Councilman Larry Agran, who has served on the council periodically since the late 1970s, said that the council should engage with county supervisors, particularly Supervisor Don Wagner, who represents Irvine and used to be mayor of the city.

A coalition of social justice organizations in Orange County is working to halt the expansion of the James A. Musick jail in Irvine.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Agran said he hopes the Board of Supervisors quickly take action.

“It would be very unfortunate if the Board of Supervisors just sat on it and did not honor the request with the scheduling of a meeting,” Agran said. “So I assume, Mayor, that you and the Vice Mayor will be conveying the importance of this in the strongest terms to our own supervisor as well as to the other supervisors, in the hope that this will be on their agenda in a matter of weeks, not deferred for months.”

The coalition believes the $289 million — not including operating costs — devoted to the addition of nearly 900 new beds to the Musick facility are unnecessary because the county’s jail population has decreased.

The coalition — which includes Transforming Justice Orange County, the ACLU of Southern California and the People’s Budget, among other groups — also believes that incarceration is not an effective treatment for social ills, and the money could be better spent on social programs that address the root causes of crime.

Coalition member Chelsea Drake said in a phone interview that it was also important that the council stated its opposition to the Musick expansion in Tuesday’s resolution.

“It was a step in the right direction, we are considering it a win,” Drake said. “It’s definitely not the end, we consider it the beginning. We are hoping the City Council continues to support our efforts opposing the expansion.”

Drake said the coalition has requested for the city to support a separate, independent public forum in Irvine to educate residents on the expansion.

“We want to do something specifically for Irvine residents because it’s so close and a lot of people don’t know about it,” Drake said.

Spreading awareness is currently the coalition’s primary focus.

“We think that one of the reasons the Musick expansion is happening is because the Orange County Board of Supervisors snuck it through,” said Jacob Reisberg, a member of the coalition and a jails conditions advocate with the ACLU of Southern California. “There was zero public debate and zero public education about the harms that the expansion would cause to the community, both financial and moral. So we think the only way to repair that is to have that public education. We are calling on the Irvine City Council to help make that happen.”

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said in mid-April that the average daily jail population is down to 3,300. It was 5,200 before the pandemic.

A judge ordered Sheriff Don Barnes in December to cut the jail population in half due to COVID-19 outbreaks among inmates.

The Musick jail has sat empty for the last two years.

The population made up the majority of Orange County jail bookings between 2010 and 2018, according to a recent report from a UCLA research team.

The O.C. Sheriff’s Department previously had a controversial contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house ICE detainees at the Musick jail. In 2019, Barnes ended that agreement, and the Musick jail facility was emptied.

The department held at the time that the agreement was terminated to make space for the increasing need for mental health beds in the county’s jails.

The expansion includes adding two new housing structures and 896 new beds, which will bring the total beds at the Musick facility to about 2,200. The expansion will bring the total beds in Orange County jails to almost 7,500, according to stats provided by Braun.

Braun said that jails have seen a nationwide increase in the number of inmates with mental illnesses. In 2015, Orange County had an average of 1,220 daily open mental health cases, she said. In 2019, that number had increased by 54% to 1,886 cases, meaning about two in five inmates required mental health treatment.

“Musick is not a mental health jail,” Braun said in an email last month. “It is the responsibility of the Sheriff’s Department to provide for the care and custody of incarcerated individuals who have broken criminal law. The beds at Musick are designed to be capable of accommodating inmates with minor mental health illness issues if needed. Those with more serious mental health issues are housed at other O.C. jail facilities.

“While inmates are in our care, the sheriff has committed to ensure they are kept safe, provided opportunities to reach mental health stability and/or sobriety if needed and have access to programs that will reduce the likelihood of recidivism upon release.”

Braun said construction began on the Musick facility in August and is expected to be completed by the end of 2022. Inmates are estimated to be moved in by February 2023, she said.

Kim took aim at the mental health component of the jail during Tuesday’s council meeting.

“We cannot jail our way out of this public health crisis,” Kim said.

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