— Esther Lim (@EstherNMNLim) October 25, 2016
On Tuesday, despite a raucous interruption from protesters chanting “No more jails!” the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the proposed new women’s jail in Lancaster—the Mira Loma Women’s Detention Center. The board also voted in favor of a $106 million fund for planning the 3,885-bed mental health-focused replacement for the crumbling and dungeon-like Men’s Central Jail. In short, the supes’ vote means the county will move forward with designing the new facilities with an estimated construction cost of over $2 billion.
During the meeting, protesters shouted their vehement opposition to building new jails, calling for diversion and other community-based alternatives. At one point, frustrated board members went into a recess while deputies cleared the protesters out of the room.
Before the protest reached full force, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell spoke to the board, and stressed that the new facilities will not increase the number of jail beds in LA. “This plan to build a new treatment facility and a new facility for our female inmates is about taking better care of our inmate patient population that we already serve,” he said.
The county’s current population of mentally ill inmates is about 4,200, McDonnell pointed out. And many of these inmates are living in “unacceptable” conditions in Men’s Central Jail. The outdated jail must be replaced with a “modern treatment center that can meet the critical mental heath and medical needs” of the county’s incarcerated, McDonnell said.
LA County officials have been moving toward diversion to reduce the jail population and better serve the county’s mentally ill. Last summer, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey presented a massive report and comprehensive plan for diverting LA’s mentally ill offenders from jails and redirecting them to community programs and support.
Increasing efforts to reduce the jail population and increase community-based treatment, have led to quite a bit of back and forth and disagreements over how many beds the treatment-focused jail should have. Sheriff McDonnell has argued in favor of an additional 1,000 beds, due to a population of mentally ill inmates that is growing “exponentially.”
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl asked the sheriff and county representatives who will decide which offenders “cannot be diverted for treatment” in the community, and should instead be housed in the Men’s Central Jail replacement. “I don’t quite understand. Where’s the triage? Who does that?” Kuehl asked.
Dr. Mark Ghaly of the Department of Health Services pointed out that LA is still in the early phases of implementing diversion programs through partnerships between county departments, but progress is being made. “We have a long way to go, but we’re learning that we can figure out who is appropriate for diversion programs and who maybe needs a little bit more time,” Ghaly said. One key element of diversion success will be “a number of new placements in the community” moving forward.
REFORMING THE CASH BAIL SYSTEM
Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl also brought up the issue of bail reform and the potential in the future for risk assessment tools to clear out a sizable portion of the jail population. Sheriff McDonnell countered that while people in pre-trial detention account for 40% of the jail population, the rest of the inmates are only serving 30% of their sentences due to overcrowding. So, according to McDonnell, reducing the number of people held pre-trial would be counteracted by people staying in jail longer.
Kuehl argued that the average percentage of time served in the jails fluctuates and is sometimes recorded at 80% or 90%. Pointing out that cash bail as it is used today creates a n unfair system that keeps indigent defendants behind bars, while rich defendants walk free, Kuehl said she’d like to find “a fairer, somewhat more American” approach to pre-trial detention.
WHAT ABOUT VALLEY FEVER?
The increased risk of valley fever in Lancaster is another issue that has been raised by those concerned about the Mira Loma facility. While not often serious, valley fever—also called desert fever—is a fungal infection caused by spores that live in soil in specific regions. While the symptoms of valley fever usually manifest as flu-like, the infection can become far more serious, and even deadly, if it spreads to other organs. Moreover, people of color—who are overrepresented in the justice system—as well as pregnant women, are at higher risk of contracting valley fever.
According to the CDC, there are about 10,000 cases of valley fever reported each year. Most of those cases occur in California and Arizona.
“The Sheriff and county supervisors plan to build a women’s jail in one of the highest risk Valley Fever areas in California, and will be imprisoning Black women there, the most at-risk population impacted by the disease,” said Kim McGill of Youth Justice Coalition. “This is a clearly destructive move, as this jail will impact the community already most disproportionately targeted by imprisonment. I have been locked up numerous times in county jail and have seen firsthand the inhumane conditions and lack of medical care that contribute to more serious impacts of infectious disease.”
Cynthia Harding, the interim Director of Public Health, reported the prevalence of valley fever in the Antelope Valley region as 26 cases per 100,000 people, compared with 2 cases per 100,000 people in the greater LA area.
A 2008 story by John Dannenberg of Prison Legal News gives some perspective on prisoners’ risk of contracting the disease. In the three years prior to 2008, 900 of the 5,300 prisoners housed at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Fresno County, along with 80 prison staff, were infected with valley fever. More than a dozen of those prisoners and one guard died from the disease. Here’s a small clip:
Although valley fever has occasionally infected archaeologists digging in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument and drug-sniffing dogs along the Mexican border, its statistical prevalence in California prisons is troubling. California reported 3,000 cases of valley fever in the general population in 2006, of which 514 were diagnosed at PVSP alone. This 17% morbidity rate among prisoners is astounding. Further, from a mortality standpoint, 12 deaths in 900 prison cases equals a 1.3% fatality rate – double the community rate of 0.6% (based on 33 deaths in 5,500 infections reported in Arizona in 2006). Put another way, if the general population had the same mortality rate as prisoners, there would have been another 38 valley fever-related deaths in the community.
WILL MIRA LOMA’S REMOTENESS PLACE TOO MUCH OF A BURDEN ON FAMILIES?
Another problem with the Mira Loma plan that’s troubling advocates is its location, which is in the northernmost part of the sprawling county.
Back in September, when the supervisors voted in favor of building the two jails, the board also unanimously approved an amendment by Supes Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl to create a gender-responsive committee to look into how to best reduce the negative impact of housing women in the very remote Mira Loma jail, far from their families and communities. Solis pointed out that it would take a Lynwood family four hours of driving one-way to visit a loved one locked up in the proposed women’s jail. “It is hard to see how these women will have sufficient access to visitors, programs and medical care,” Solis said in 2015.
When Kuehl again brought up the issue of the facility’s remoteness at Tuesday’s meeting, a representative from the health department suggested a portion of the jail funding might be used to provide transportation to the Mira Loma facility. “I think we have an opportunity to make this a model,” the speaker said.
SUPERVISOR CANDIDATES DISCUSS JAIL PLANS
On Tuesday, KPCC’s Larry Mantle moderated a debate between the candidates competing for outgoing Supervisor Don Knabe’s seat, Janice Hahn and Steve Napolitano. The two candidates briefly discussed their thoughts on the issue of replacing Men’s Central Jail.
Hahn says she toured the jail and “was pretty horrified at the conditions” inmates were living under. “It’s really unsafe for the inmates, and it’s really unsafe for the deputy sheriffs,” said Hahn. “So I would first support modernizing our jail to make it a safer and a much more appealing facility both for the inmates and also the county deputies.”
Hahn also said she wants to ensure that the mentally ill who come into contact with the justice system in LA County get the services and treatment that they need. “I feel very very strongly about really spending more money on mental health workers, more money on those who can go with the sheriffs out when they come in contact with someone and feel like arrest is the only thing to do,” said Hahn. “I want to give an option to these people and divert them from our jails to a place where we can really help them.”
Napolitano also argued in favor of replacing the jail. “Tear down Men’s Central Jail,” Napolitano said. “It’s a terrible facility…it was built at a time where they were building dungeons, it seems, because it certainly isn’t a jail.” Napolitano said he was in favor of building a new facility to serve people in need of mental health services. “There is a plan right now to do that,” said Napolitano. “It’s at a very high cost, though.”
The supervisors are slated to approve a design building contract for the Mira Loma renovations during the third quarter of next year. Construction is expected to start in 2018 and finish at the end of 2019. The next step for the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility replacing Men’s Central Jail is an Environmental Impact Report due back to the board around June 2017.
The above video was taken by Esther Lim, director of jails and deputy director of advocacy at the ACLU of Southern California.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, we erroneously said the jails would cost over $2 million rather than $2 billion.