LOS ANGELES – Protesters caused the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to declare a temporary recess Tuesday before voting to move forward with plans for a 1,604-bed women’s jail in Lancaster.
The board’s vote — taken roughly 90 minutes after the room was cleared — was unanimous to certify the Final Environmental Impact Report for the women’s jail.
Dozens of community activists were in the audience, some wearing hazardous materials suits to highlight concerns about valley fever.
But as county staffers outlined plans for the $136 million Mira Loma Women’s Detention Center, community members began loudly chanting, “no more jails” and standing up to shout indictments of the plan.
Supervisor Hilda Solis, who chairs the board, called for quiet and threatened to call the meeting into recess.
“We understand this is a challenging topic,” Solis said as the crowd continued to shout.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas took a turn at trying to calm the protesters, who simply changed their chant.
“Walk out on the jail plan, not the community,” the activists shouted. “Reject the EIR.”
The supervisors left the board room as the chants continued.
Deputies told the activists they would be arrested if they didn’t leave the board room and the group slowly filed out and gathered outside.
Community activists have fought the jail for years, pressing officials to find alternatives to incarceration and spend money on community-based programs.
Opponents have raised concerns about the Mira Loma Detention Center, including the potential for spread of valley fever, a fungal infection, and the distance families must travel to visit inmates.
The county has dedicated resources to diversion programs, but maintains that those efforts will not eliminate the need for modern detention facilities.
Female inmates are currently housed in Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, a high-security facility built for men. The Lancaster jail is a retrofit of a federal immigration detention center to create a more open, campus-like environment offering “gender-responsive programs.”
The jails plan “reflects a lot of high hopes for the board,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said. “The hope is that we will really have a different kind of incarceration … we’re hoping for rehabilitation and treatment.”
Dr. Mark Ghaly of the county’s Department of Health Services said he envisioned the women’s jail as a “well facility.”
No one involved in the earlier disturbance was allowed back in the board room to comment, but the LA No More Jails Coalition issued a statement.
“The vast majority of those locked up in women’s jails in L.A. don’t need to be there,” said Christina Tsao of Critical Resistance Los Angeles. “This plan for a new women’s jail promises services and programs that cannot be delivered. … Women need quality treatment, supportive housing, employment opportunities and sustained connection with their children in their communities, not another jail.”
Solis questioned how the county would ensure the health of female inmates given concerns about valley fever, which is more prevalent in the Antelope Valley.
An infectious disease specialist with the Department of Public Health said the risk of contracting the fever would be no greater at the women’s jail than elsewhere in Lancaster.
A microbiologist from Cal State Bakersfield disagreed.
“If the county is invested in preventing public health risk, it is not a good idea to have a jail system expanded in an area that is endemic for the valley fever pathogen,” soil specialist Antje Lauer said in a statement.
Speaking for the county, Dr. Dawn Tereshita noted that the state corrections department, which screens for valley fever in other prisons, does not see a need for monitoring at its state prison adjacent to the Lancaster jail site.
Construction on the women’s jail is tentatively slated to begin in 2018.
At Tuesday’s meeting, supervisors also approved $106 million in funding for a 3,885-bed treatment center in downtown Los Angeles to replace the Men’s Central Jail.
Previous related story: Community activists oppose women’s prison in Lancaster