LA County Jail

LA Moves Closer to Building a $2.2 Billion “Mental Health” Jail

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to move forward with the $2.2 billion construction of a controversial “mental health jail” to replace the county’s crumbling Men’s Central Jail, which was built in 1963. The jail plan has been the subject of a decade-long battle over whether building a new state-of-the-art facility is the best way to address the problem of Men’s Central Jail in an age in which many states and counties are focused on reducing the nation’s reliance on incarceration.

The board approved the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the 3,855-bed jail—the “Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility”—on Tuesday, which means the plan will now move into the design phase.

The board first selected a larger, 4,860-bed configuration for the new facility, but ultimately reduced the capacity to 3,885 beds, a number lower than the number of beds that will be replaced.

The “decrepit” jail lacks sunlight and space for rehabilitative programs, and has developed serious structural problems that include aging plumbing and electrical systems, according to the LA County Sheriff’s Department.

The LA County jail system is often referred to as the largest mental health system in the nation. Approximately 70 percent of the county’s jail population report mental and/or medical illnesses when they are processed at the inmate reception center. According to the LA County Sheriff’s Department, the jail system “struggles with housing” its “mentally ill inmate-patients,” which make up approximately 30 percent of the jail population.

In 2017, 1,037 of LA County’s inmates required “high observation” housing, while 2,486 required “moderate observation,” according to LASD data.

“I do not believe a jail should be a mental health hospital but that is increasingly what our jail system has become,” LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a statement after the vote. “The vote to support the continued development of a new correctional treatment facility is absolutely the just and right move forward. It is a vote for service, compassion and the opportunity for the most vulnerable in our care to receive the appropriate medical and mental health services in a treatment centered environment.”

County officials hope to better serve the jails mental health population with the new facility’s “treatment-centric features,” which include “housing units designed to function as therapeutic communities with more direct and personalized contact between inmate-patients and staff; improved access to treatment, suicide prevention, disabled access, lines of sight and security: flexibility for managing a fluctuating inmate-patient population; access to re-entry services; and
reduced recidivism.”

Construction could begin as early as next year, and would be completed around 2025. In the meantime, the supes have approved a $12.6 plan to relocate Men’s Central “infirmary inmates” to Pitchess Detention Center for the duration of the construction period.

The Men’s Central Jail replacement project also includes plans to move the county’s female inmates from the similarly decaying Century Women’s Regional Center in Lynwood to a new women’s jail in Lancaster. The plan is to renovate Mira Loma, a facility that is currently sitting empty. The future Mira Loma facility has been criticized for its remote location, far from many inmates’ families and communities. Advocates have also voiced worries about the increased risk of deadly valley fever outbreaks that comes with the facility’s dusty desert location.

Community representatives and advocates from Dignity and Power Now were among those who vocally opposed the new jail facilities. A number of individuals and advocacy groups continued to urge on the board to redirect the jail-building dollars to community programs that address mental health, substance use, homelessness and the other issues that funnel people into the county’s jails.

The environment in lockups often exacerbates existing mental illnesses, and can create mental illness in people who entered lockup without preexisting mental health conditions—especially for individuals housed in solitary confinement.

James Nelson, a campaign leader at Dignity and Power Now, said that during his years in prison, he saw “so many mental health patients,” whom he says weren’t mentally ill before their incarceration. “That’s why I’m here,” Nelson said, “to say you can’t get well in the cell.”

Nearly half of the county’s jail population is being held pre-trial—often because of an inability to post bail.

The supervisors also voted on Tuesday to support the state’s bail reform bill, SB 10, and have been exploring possibilities for reforming the cash bail system at the local level, both of which could lead to reduced jail populations.

The jail replacement plan “incredibly worrisome,” said civilian watchdog Eric Preven. This process has been going on for a number of years, and the idea of reducing the population is not being platformed and put forward. We continue to circle around about the financing for this giant jail.”

But Supervisor Hilda Solis says that individuals deprived of their liberty should not also be “deprived of dignity.” The jail build, according to Solis, is just one part of a much larger effort to increase community treatment options for people with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems, to increase diversion efforts, to get the formerly incarcerated into the county’s workforce, and to reduce the number of individuals held in county jails while they await trial.

Supervisor Solis pointed to another motion passed Tuesday, that will move 150 felony defendants declared incompetent to stand trial, who would otherwise spend four to six months waiting in jail for a state hospital bed to open up, into mental health beds in the community.

“The “my ‘Healthy Village’ initiative at LAC+USC is envisioned around the ‘whole person care’ concept, and will be designed to provide wraparound services and repurpose underutilized County assets,” Solis added. “The Restorative Care Village at LAC+USC, once built, will address the mental, housing, recidivism, employment, and overall well-being of the County’s most vulnerable populations, including many that are currently housed at Men’s Central Jail.” Solis and her fellow supervisors intend for these county initiatives will become national models.

“My hope is that the future success of this facility will further reduce the mentally ill population in our jail system, and that we will see additional overall reductions in our jail system through the many other initiatives this Board is creating and implementing,” said Solis. “Today is the next step in establishing better care for those in our custody while also ensuring that more people do not fall into our justice system.”

Still, many advocates and community members worry that if the county builds the jail, it will fill the jail.

“You cannot just keep jailing people suffering from mental illness–not even if you build nice new shiny jails and call them treatment centers–it’s still a jail and people who are mentally ill and oftentimes homeless are being preyed upon and counted on to fill up these new cells,” said Dignity and Power Now founder, Patrisse Cullors, who also chairs the Reform LA Jails campaign. The campaign has gathered approximately 170,000 signatures to put a ballot measure before LA County voters that would “develop a Comprehensive Public Safety Reinvestment Plan that substantiates the need to invest alternatives to incarcerations–particularly for the mentally ill and homeless–instead of taking $3.5 billion to build new jails.”


Image of Men’s Central Jail by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the number of signatures needed to qualify for a state-level ballot measure, rather than the 146,333 valid signatures needed for an LA County ballot measure.

6 Comments

  • Why are the BOS approving a jail (with minimal capacity at that) when what is clearly needed are more mental health facility treatment beds? Everyone knows it, mental health professionals, politicians and law enforcement.

    This isn’t the 19th or 20th century and the old argument of mentally ill people being locked away and abused is just that….”old”. If law enforcement are so I’ll equipped to deal with mentally ill people, why spend billions on a new facility where the mentally ill will come in contact with them everyday since all they do is abuse and mistreat them?

    The people voted for housing for the homeless and our state and local politicians were quick to jump on and support that cause. What gives???

  • Seriously, what do any of our County Supervisors know about mental illness or mental health treatment?
    I’m not asking what they think they know.
    But what do they actually know?
    What programs and facilities outside of Los Angeles County have they studied for applicability and measured for proven efficacy to draw upon as models to influence and inform the design and programming of our new jail facility?
    It sounds like the Supervisors plan a different approach to this project — they will place the cart in front of the horse, firmly hitch the rear of the cart to the horses neck and then fire a starter pistol in the horses ear while simultaneously igniting a crate of dynamite to blow open a steel safe and send billions of dollars of taxpayer money flying up in the air and everywhere.
    That’s what I’m hearing from County Sup. Hilda Solis.
    She understands diddly about the reality of why and how MCJ operates and she knows squat about diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, yet she has decided to demolish 2 million cubic feet of concrete and pour 2 million cubic feet of fresh concrete and she anticipates the resulting boondoggle will become the model upon which the rest of the nation bases planning for their new jail facilities!!!???!!!
    In reality, this is not L.A. County stumbling blindly alone to a wonderful new tomorrow.
    Instead, Supervisor Solis envisions a “Healthy Village” partnership with USC.
    The County will spend millions$$ to build a wraparound mental health treatment/jail utopia “Restorative Care Village at LA County + USC”
    That’s such a beautiful and inspiring name.
    The County will probably hire gang members and pay them $30/hour to spray paint rainbow colored teddy bears and kittens and moon flowers on the walls before opening the doors to welcome in the new villagers.
    Because Supervisor Solis obviously read Hillary Clinton’s classic “It takes a Village”.
    She knows that it takes a village to heal the sick, to cure the mentally ill, to reform sociopathic criminal predators and unleash their hidden desire to become benevolent, nurturing, huggable teddy-bear villagers.
    Though I worry no one has briefed Supervisor Solis on the current USC situation.
    USC has experienced significant issues providing routine medical care to their own law-abiding village of mentally-well tuition paying academic student body without subjecting them to traumatic sexual assult committed by a serial predator staff physician protected and enabled during years of inexcusable negligence by supervisory administrators.
    USC needs some time-off to focus on treating the mental illness afflicting their own Administration before they are ready for L.A. County to climb on their shoulders to roll out a new all-inclusive wrap-around inmate mental health spa serving as a beacon to the nation.
    In all honesty, there is really only one thing which can be guaranteed about the jail replacement project the Supervisors are determined to unleash upon the overtaxed residents of L.A. County –
    if this project is budgeted at $2.2 billion, the final bill at completion will total no less than $5 billion.

    • “…And she knows squat about diagnosis and treatment of mental illness….”

      Many decades ago I had to take Psychology 1A as a General Education requirement for my Baccalaureate, and this is what my instructor said about psychology:

      It is an elevated form of Voodoo.

  • Good old time-y politics. What does the board know about mental health? They know one thing, it’s a good way to sell a couple of construction projects. Billions sloshing around to donors, cronies, family members, all the usual suspects. Gotta love how they use fashionable new age nonsense to sell the new cages. “Community treatment options” ya right, but then again, who the hell cares anyways? Btw how old is the Lynwood facility? Can’t be that old, anyone have any first hand info on its condition? Not that it matters, when there’s literally billions to be syphoned off.

  • Yep, wave some more taxpayers money at the mental health issue and it will go away. They want to go nice on the folks who commit crimes. I’m fine with that but they are closing the barn door after the horses are out.

    How about spending some of that cash on the people who are still on the streets and have yet to commit a crime. You know, nip it in the bud sort of thing.

    It is easy to point to “crumbling” jails but I wonder how far 3.5 billion would go if spent on effective treatment programs for the non-incarcerated. But, that is really hard to do. You have to figure out how to make such programs effective. How to reach those who need the help. How to insure they get the treatment they need and then the all-important follow-up. I repeat, that stuff is REALLY HARD. It would take the BOS to actually examine the problem (which of course includes the homeless population), put together a blue ribbon commission to make recommendations, maybe even work with the City of LA and other cities in LA County to have an overall, county-wide strategy, and actually try to make an impact on the issue of mental health and the homeless. You know, make a difference.

    Instead let’s just build another jail, call it a fancy name and think everything will be hunky dory.

    Problem solved, let’s go to lunch.

  • We elect our County Supervisors to be cautious and effective managers of the taxpayer’s money.

    The County is responsible for providing numerous essential governmental functions and services.
    The Supervisors should be methodical and rigorous in prioritizing programs and projects.
    They need to assure accountability in day to day operations.
    Approval of capital building and infrastructure projects is a careful process to balance quality, efficiency, durability.
    Their oversight should strive to get the most value in return for every taxpayer dollar spent, while maintaining financial stability in the short-term and the long-term.
    The County Supervisor should not allow themselves to become a quasi-lobbyist. There are more than enough lobbyists already vying for the attention and favor of the BOS.
    Supervisor Solis tenure in the Obama Administration generated some questions about her ability to follow
    ethical boundaries separating partisan political activity from her duties as a salaried govt. official.

    The inherent contradictions in Solis’ pronouncements should serve as a red flag signaling a lack of the required objectivity to carry out her fiduciary duty to County taxpayers when evaluating this project.
    Solis wants the new jail project to help reduce number of mentally ill in our jail and ensure more people “do not fall into our justice system”.
    She also wants to place mentally incompetent felons into treatment beds “in the community” while they wait for an opening at Patton State Mental Prison.

    If the new jail facility actually delivers access to all of the in-house services promised and directly connects to all the valuable outside support resources being touted, then there will be a full waiting list to get admitted before it ever opens.

    People tired of waiting for access to overbooked non-profit social service agencies will jump in front of police cars and run into police stations to commit any obvious felony to get arrested.

    Supervisor Solis was just re-elected to her second term.
    Is she preparing an opportunity for employment related to the jail project when she’s termed out in 4 years?

    The entire process of approving this project appears dishonest.
    MCJ is crumbling.
    It has severe structural defects – that’s what we’ve been told.
    Should we expect MCJ to collapse at any moment?

    Old plumbing and electrical systems are not structural defects.
    Where is the cost estimate for rehab of plumbing and electrical at MCJ?

    We are told MCJ doesn’t have room for new model treatment facilities – does that mean it must be demolished?

    What about the underutilized concrete parking structures sited right next to MCJ –
    can we build something there which can serve the new treatment goals?

    MCJ opened in 1963 and its already built and paid for.
    Its old and it needs rehabbing.
    There are many public and municipal facilities still in operation which were constructed during the 1930’s.
    They have been rehabbed. They are rock-solid and continue to serve the public good.

    The question here is the integrity of the County Supervisors and their ability to preserve a valuable capital asset and efficiently manage the taxpayer’s money.
    Clearly, that is in doubt.

Leave a Comment