Jail Reform

LA County Must “Reimagine” Its $2.2 Billion Jail Construction Project Before Moving Ahead, Say Supervisors Solis & Kuehl

Twin Towers Correctional Facility, via Los Angeles Sheriff's Department
Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

Tuesday’s LA County Board of Supervisors’ meeting is shaping up to be interesting—and possibly even combative—having to do with a new motion authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl.

If passed, this motion will slam on the brakes for the county’s controversial $2.2 billion jail building project, which has been in the works for nearly a decade.

According to Solis and Kuehl, the proposed pause is urgent. Otherwise, this massive project, however well-intentioned,  will find itself out of date and out of touch with important justice reforms that the nation, the state, and the county have been putting in motion over the last few years.

Men’s Central Jail, via WitnessLA

Here’s the deal:

The LA County jail system is repeatedly—and correctly—referred to as the largest mental health facility in the nation. According to LA County Sheriff’s Department’s stats, as of June of last year, the inmates who struggle with mental illness make up approximately 30 percent of the county’s jail population.

The planned 3,855-bed new jail, known as the “Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility,” or CCTF, has been advertised as a state of the art treatment facility that is specifically designed to better serve this population.  At the same time, it will replace the horrifying decrepit and dungeon-like Men’s Central Jail, which was built in 1963, and is now not a safe (or healthy) environment for either staff or inmates.

Men’s Central Jail, via WitnessLA

The board is scheduled to vote on Tuesday to approve CCTF’s  revised total budget of $2,179,833,000, and to also approve the needed “design-build contract” for McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., which has been deemed to be the best applicant for the job.

(Actually, the vote to approve the new budget and the contract was supposed to have taken place more than a month ago, on January 8. But it was put off until this coming Tuesday, February 12.)

Now, however,  Solis and Kuehl’s motion aims to hit the pause button in order to allow for what the two say is a necessary reimagining of the way the new facility is being approached.

“Before moving forward on a plan to build a new detention facility, even one with treatment capacity,” the two supes write,”  the board is long overdue for a targeted and comprehensive study of who the people who are in our jails, and what works to put them and their families on a path towards maintaining healthy, stable, and productive lives in their communities.”

According  to forensic mental health experts, the motion points out,  investments in new jails, even bright, shiny facilities with improved treatment components, “are unlikely to significantly improve the treatment of inmates with mental illness or reduce the prevalence of substance abuse and resistance to treatment.” Nor will those same facilities “significantly lower rates of recidivism and improve outcomes.”

Men’s Central Jail cell, via WitnessLA

In fact, when it comes to mentally ill inmates, jails usually make things worse.

The answer, Solis and Kuehl write, is not in merely building a high-tech new jail to replace the awful, questionably-constitutional Men’s Central Jail, but rather to follow the lead of jurisdictions such as Miami-Dade County, which has become well known for its move toward “a well-resourced and well-functioning” community mental health system “that enables people with mental illnesses to exist in the community without threatening public safety, themselves, or others.”

The motion in no way suggests doing away with the jail project altogether.  It just wants to stop and take a breath in order to reexamine the way the new facility is being approached to make sure that it is not just an end in itself, but instead functions as a flexible part of a  countywide public health “harm reduction” strategy for helping LA’s mentally ill residents—namely a strategy which  includes diversion, medication assisted treatment, and overdose prevention—instead of “relying on traditional criminal justice responses.”

The need for community resources

Admittedly, LA County doesn’t yet have the kind of robust, countywide public health resources that LA’s mentally ill residents really need.

Even though the county has taken substantial steps in the direction of diversion and treatment for its mentally ill population, it is not yet anywhere near enough.

Men’s Central Jail, via LASD

But, creating a plan to acquire the necessary resources is also an element of Solis and Kuehl’s motion.

For instance, the multi-part motion asks the LA County CEO to:

1. Look at how many mentally ill and similarly vulnerable people in the jails would be eligible for diversion.

2. Determine the nature and number of treatment facilities and programs that would be necessary, at minimum, to adequately provide a “well-resourced and well-functioning community mental health system,” like that of Miami-Dade, and other best practice models around the nation—but adapted for Los Angeles.

3. Take a look at how LA could realistically fund such as system with a combination of existing county funds, plus available state and federal funds, and various other pots of money, including the possible repurposing of $100 million in AB900 funds originally slated for a new women’s jail in Mira Loma outside of Lancaster, (a location that, as we reported last month, now appears to be firmly off the table).

Jails are not healing

Whatever way the vote goes on the Solis/Kuehl motion on Tuesday,  the facts that the motion lays out are compelling.

It is, for example,  inarguable that LA County’s jails are, by definition, ill-equipped treatment providers for mentally ill inmates when it comes to decreasing the likelihood of overdose, homelessness, or decompensation when these individuals get out jail.

And, a long list of studies and reports have found that, statistically speaking, jail inmates with mental illness remain locked up longer than their non-mentally ill counterparts. They also return to jail more frequently, and cost more to incarcerate.

“It’s not simply that jails are ill-equipped to treat those with mental illness,” Solis and Kuel write, “the environments are also chaotic, noisy, and dangerous, all attributes that make it more likely to exacerbate symptoms than soothe them.”

And none of this improves public safety either.

In general, states the motion, failing to “adequately address the treatment needs of those with mental illness while they are in jail increases the odds that they will commit crimes after their release and continue the cycle of incarceration.”

The downside of delay

All of the above said, there are practical reasons that argue against slowing down the jail project.  For instance,  sources who are concerned about the delay that the motion proposes told us that, among their worries, is the near certainty that if the county has to start over with McCarthy, or any other of the very few companies that are equipped to take on such a project, the cost will inevitably be far higher than the already daunting 2.2 billion bucks.

Moreover, as Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas put it last month, the board needs to move ahead soon with something since “the status quo is fundamentally unacceptable,” and the constitutional rights of individuals in the county’s jails are at stake right this minute,  particularly when it comes to MCJ.

But, Ridley-Thomas added, the board must be confident that any plan they approve “prioritizes rehabilitation, healing…” and so on.

As far as we know, Ridley-Thomas has not yet said where he stands on Solis and Kuehl’s motion.

As of Friday, neither Supervisors Janice Hahn or Kathryn Barger were reportedly committed to the new motion either.

Additionally, although it is, at present, unclear whether or not Sheriff Alex Villanueva will attend Tuesday’s meeting, someone representing the department’s custody division is reportedly planning to go, since the LASD obviously has a large stake in the decision as well.

Still, Solis and Kuehl appear undeterred.

“We still need a facility to replace Men’s Central Jail, which is incompatible with today’s standards of care, custody, and compliance,” wrote Solis in a statement that went out last Wednesday to announce the new motion. “But we need a facility that more directly addresses the health needs of those it will serve, and one that falls into line with modern approaches to criminal justice and rehabilitation.”

As things stand right now, she is not convinced that the existing plan can hit those marks, so “at next Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors,” she concluded, “I will be voting no on the CCTF project.”

So….as is often the case….stay tuned.


  • Celeste, it billion…not million.

    It’s also notable that the effects of the conditions in the current facilities on staff is mentioned ONCE…almost as an afterthought.

  • WE ARE ALL CRAZY! Sadly, the weak spineless politicians couldn’t give needed mental, financial assistance to the victims of the crimes that these mental criminals commit. These political comments have been said before and the well intended programs failed miserably as there isn’t enough money and resources to successfully treat and cure thousands of criminal mental illness. Of course there is no cure. For an example of a well intended failure was the DV facility at BC years ago.

    For nearly a hundred years political efforts failed to help victims recover and are often left to live with the fear and mental anguish of the violence perpetrated against them. Yes, there are a few programs but offer little real help.

    For anyone to believe that the new BOS supes are smarter or more insightful that the politicos of the past is just plain dumb! And as usual not one innovative idea coming from our elected supes. The solution we have always heard is; if we just gave out MORE TAXPAYER MONIES and then everything will be great. More money doesn’t work as we have forgot that a jail is a short term facility and the majority of criminals don’t stay long enough for treatment to work and these criminals never show up for after care. Now I would support longer sentences for treatment. The supes have known for years about this proposed building and Cruel(Kuehl) and Solis are just now complaining? Talk about delayed thought.

    Everyone has agreed that we need a new facility. Regardless, of any inventiveness, it takes time to plan and build. The longer we wait, the more cost associated with the building.

    If the new facility gets put off then those with the most need (victims, staff and criminal mentally ill) get to continue to work, live and fail in the same old fecal and urine stained building as before?


  • I wonder if these justice warriors, of the type of Kruel and Solis are worried about the injustice the McBuckles/Teran regime committed against innocent deputies, for their political gain. I am sure there are a lot deputies, custody assistants, their spouses and children suffering mental pain and anguish, caused by these criminals, McBuckles/Teran.

    Unfortunately, screwing deputies pays well politically, and it makes LA Times headlines, and defending career criminals, pays even better. These politicians make me want to throw up. It gives me some hope, that about 50% of the population can see all these hypocrites, fake politicians and pseudo-journalists from a mile away.

    I wander why Barger did not join the motion, she may be getting a kickback from the construction company.

  • Wonder why Solis and Kruel are working so hard to keep the old dungeons open. The reasons given don’t seem to have anything to do with the fact that a new facility is needed, just a bunch of vague fuzzy headed platitudes about “community mental health systems” and the like. (Whatever the hell that has to do with building a new jail.) It makes you wonder, after all 2 billion dollars is a lot of money sloshing around in the trough, maybe these two supervisors feel like they haven’t gotten their beaks sufficiently wet.


    Dear LASD Apostle,

    Arrrrrggghh. Thanks for the proofreading note. (And in the headline!!!) It’s fixed now. As for, “It’s also notable that the effects of the conditions in the current facilities on staff is mentioned ONCE…almost as an afterthought….”

    …It’s not an afterthought. It’s a crucial issue for both inmates and staff, which it why all the photos for the story, save the one at the top (where I needed a horizontal photo), are of MCJ, including one of a staff member, who’s there specifically to represent those who work in that ghastly facility. But this story is not about MCJ and the ongoing harm it does. It’s about the motion, and whether the existing plan for CCTF is the right one. And, if not, if it’s worth delaying the project still more to fix it.

    I hope that helps.

    Thanks again.


  • Celeste,

    I’m one of your biggest critics, but this was an excellent article. Don’t roll your eyes, I saw that.

    The problem is that jail and mental illness should (almost) never be mentioned in the same breath. Plain and simple, LEO are not trained or equipped to deal with the mentally ill. Sure, jail for some offenders is the only option to keep the community safe. I’m talking about the average offender who suffers from mental illness and/or addiction. Jail for those does society as a whole, especially the staff and the offender, a total disservice. The Line Deputies are in a No Win situation with force, civilian oversight committees who 2nd guess their last resort actions, the offenders condition worsening by the day etc. etc.

    Meanwhile the idiots in the Hall of Admin sit in their cushy chairs with not a care in the world about the lives being ruined.

    Completely separate facilities are needed. Jails are for hard core criminals and should be ran by the LASD. Secure psychiatric/drug treatment facilities should house the mentally ill and be ran by medical service professionals, not cops!!! I don’t care how many Bullshit training classes a deputy takes, they will never be qualified to deal with patients that need professional care. Mental Care professionals are in school for years and then go to residencies to prepare them to deal with mentally ill patients. We go to the academy.

    150 billion for a really fast Fucking train. Think of how many very secure mental health facilities staffed by true mental health professionals could be built throughout the state for 150 billion dollars. Then we could spend the 2 billion tearing down MCJ and actually build a real jail.

  • Hi Celeste. I should have been more clear. I was referring to the motions, not the article (but now that you mention it, something more than one photo of a deputy would have been nice). That being said, I’ve followed your work for years and greatly admire what you do.

    The entire emphasis today is shifting to care, treatment and rehabilitation as though criminality were a disease, like obesity and drug/alcohol addiction. The problem with that approach is that it removes personal responsibility.

    All attention is now on helping those who have committed crimes, which, honestly, may be the best approach…I don’t know. Unfortunately, little, if any, attention is given to the victims of those crimes and the men and women who have to deal with the offenders (mentally ill or not) while in custody.

    The staff (both sworn and civilian) who have to deal with the, as you put it, “ghastly” conditions in our jails are almost always forgotten.

    Just ONCE, I’d like to see a story about deputies who’ve been attacked, had feces, urine or semen thrown in their face, who’ve contracted staff infections (and passed it onto family members) or who’ve had family break-ups over long hours or who have emotional problems from the trauma of going to work in these conditions every day.

  • Celeste,

    The actions of the BOS will only worsen the conditions that both inmates are being confined in, and staff are made to work in. The problem is, when something comes to light/to the surface, it’s often the low hanging fruit who get hung out to dry; due to no true fault of their own.

    There are jails in this country that are far more antiquated than MCJ that operate with far less scrutiny. Many times in years past the BOS was made aware than MCJ should close… but they keep kicking the can down the road.

    The BOS makes decisions that they do not/cannot make come to fruition. There are only so many balls that law enforcement can juggle, before at least one is bound to drop. Decisions are made that have a profound impact on those that “work the line”. This is one thing that Sheriff Villanueva spoke of; it has an impact on morale and attendanice. This is where I think you need to take a good look at what the sheriff’s trying to do. He’s trying to boost morale; because deputies do not feel like they can defend themselves anymore.

    If this isn’t addressed, it doesn’t matter when the new jail gets built; the county won’t have anybody left to operate it.

  • WOW!! BOS decide to use money slated for a new jail to replace the Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers, and build a mental hospital instead, that will be ran by the Department of Health Services. 1. It’s too bad the old, outdated and falling to pieces Men’s Central Jail won’t be demolished, and 2. Has someone finally awoke from their slumber and realized “jail guards” are not trained and will never have the “credentials” to effectively be able to deal with mentally ill inmates on a day to day basis. There is a need for mentally ill people who commit crimes to be locked, county jails just aren’t the place.

    The public sees people in police uniforms only out to harm, beat and mistreat while those in scrubs and white coats are there to help and treat.

    Finally…a gilmmer of common sense, hooe and relief for the employees working with mentally ill at LASD.

    Caveat. The BOS is fickle, the plan was approproved after years of study for the new jail, but with one last minute vote at the 11th hour the script wasn’t just flipped but instead ripped up, burned and a full re-write requested. Things could change at the 11th hour again.

  • This jail “study” has been in play since 2006. And millions has been wasted on county-appointed consultants coming up with a myriad of schemes to address the massive inmate population that is increasingly sick, mentally ill, or has classification issues. MCJ is a disgrace. I feel for the staff that has to work there. It was built in a time when surveillance of inmates and inmate activity requirements were not codified. It needs to be torn down and replaced with a facility that can allow all the statutory requirements more easily. MCJ reminds me of Alcatraz.

    The BOS has no stomach to address the failing infrastructure that is…the biggest crime deterrent our society has. Shame on them!

  • …I wish failing infracture, decaying and archaic jails and a biased judicial system were enough to deter and prevent people from breaking the law. It’s not though….Men’s Central Jail, San Quentin, Pelican Bay and many others are all full of inmates, convicts, criminals, mal contents, law breakers or whatever you want to call them who were sent to these abysmal places for committing criminal acts against others of their own free will. Many are repeat offenders to boot. The goal is then one to prevent these folks from harming, preying on and attacking law abiding people.

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