LOS ANGELES – Criminal justice advocates Tuesday urged the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to cancel a planning contract for a downtown jail treatment center.
Activists and community leaders have long been concerned that the $2.2 billion replacement for the downtown Men’s Central Jail will eat up resources that could be put to more productive use.
“That’s what happens when you invest in people. People will grow, people will learn and people will do great things,” Phal Sok of the Youth Justice Coalition told the board. “So invest in people, not in cages.”
During a June meeting on the county budget, the board pulled back 75% of the funding for work to set the scope and cost of the mental health treatment jail. But the board stopped short of canceling its contract with McCarthy Building Cos. Inc. and allocated $30 million to the effort while continuing to evaluate its alternatives.
The June vote was 3-2, with Supervisors Janice Hahn and Hilda Solis dissenting and Solis unsuccessfully pushing to hold all of the money back. Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai had warned that not allocating any money to the project would put the county in breach of its $53.5 million contract with McCarthy.
Even Hahn, who co-authored the original February proposal for the mental health treatment center with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, expressed disappointment in June with a draft plan for the facility.
That draft plan has not been made public, but Solis said it called for 2,500 beds. Community activists and civil rights groups say it amounts to a jail masquerading as a hospital and will be too large to provide quality mental health care.
Dignity & Power Now, the Youth Justice Coalition, JusticeLA Coalition, American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and several other groups have urged the board to build smaller treatment facilities scattered throughout the county.
Some activists have taken aim at McCarthy itself because the firm built the California Health Care Facility in Stockton. Admissions at that facility — which was specifically designed to accommodate the needs of sick and mentally ill inmates — were halted by a court overseer in 2014, just six months after the prison opened. An inmate had died after nurses failed to answer call buttons in the outpatient unit, and unsanitary conditions and a lack of supplies may have contributed to an outbreak of scabies at the facility, the Los Angeles Times reported.
This April, the state’s inspector general gave the same prison an inadequate rating on eight of 10 indicators and documented problems in providing quality care. Earlier that same month, an inmate died due to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease.
Los Angeles County officials have said the downtown mental health treatment center would be run by the Department of Health Services and staffed by the Department of Mental Health to ensure a “care first” approach, but have not clearly articulated the Sheriff’s Department’s role.
Ivette Ale of the Californians United for a Responsible Budget said issues at the sheriff’s department — which include a court battle with the board over reinstatement of a deputy accused of domestic violence — should be enough to give the board second thoughts.
“We ask you to stop any construction of a jail that could be managed by the Sheriff’s Department. Their dysfunction alone is reason enough to not give them any more funding or custody over some of the most vulnerable members of our community — folks with mental health needs and folks that can benefit from substance use treatment in the community,” Ale said.
The jails issue has drawn interest from outside California.
Wade McMullen — who works for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and focuses on reforming the U.S. criminal legal system — urged the board to cancel the McCarthy contract and fund community- based care.
“People need services, not shackles,” McMullen said.
If the board ultimately backed away from the contract, it would not be the first time.
In February, the supervisors scrapped plans for a women’s jail 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles at the former Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster. The county paid out $150,000 each to two construction companies that bid on the job.
However, the board also called for a report back on alternative locations, which could include renovating Century Regional Detention Center.
Meanwhile, thousands of inmates remain in custody at the 1960s-era Men’s Central Jail, which Supervisor Sheila Kuehl has called a “pit.” Many live in cramped, dark cells set in long rows that make them difficult to monitor, creating an unsafe environment for both guards and inmates. Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in February that the facility was plagued by rats and amounts to “a time bomb waiting to go off.”
Several reports related to the downtown jail plan are due between now and the end of this year, but no action was taken by the board Tuesday.
McCarthy is contracted to work through March or April of next year on a plan for the board’s approval.
The county CEO has publicly committed that no groundbreaking will take place prior to that review.