with Celeste Fremon
When on Tuesday, August 13, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to cancel the $1.7 billion contract to replace the dangerous and dungeon-like Men’s Central Jail, and to commit to a “care first” ethic for the mentally ill, wherever they stood on the issue, everyone in the room seemed to understand that the vote marked a fundamental change in county policy.
After hours of emotional and, at certain points, quite adversarial discussion, when finally Board Chair Janice Hahn called the supervisors’ names and, one after the other, they cast their votes–four yes votes, and one no from Kathryn Barger—the emotional crowd paused for one stunned half-second to take in the significance of the action, before erupting in shouts, cheers, whistles, and in more than a few cases, tears.
For those not obsessively following the issue, the motion, co-authored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl, instructs the Director of Public Works to terminate the county’s contract with McCarthy Building Companies to design and construct a mental health treatment facility to take the place of MCJ.
Yet, the drama that accompanied the pre-vote discussion made clear that the canceling of the contract was far more than the sum of its parts.
“It is a historic moment for all of us, for all Angelenos,” Supervisor Solis said when she formally introduced the motion to dump the contract.
Solis explained that exiting the McCarthy contract pointed beyond itself to represent county management’s desire to move beyond “what we’ve always done, which is relying on an old model, an old jail system” that keeps people in a cycle of incarceration and fails to benefit public safety.
Solis credited community advocates for shoving and inspiring the board toward a “care-first” approach.
“Incarceration is…an experiment…”
“This is not just a group of advocates,” said Supervisor Kuehl, when it was her turn to speak about the motion. “It’s a rare and impactful moment — one that I’ve seen only a few times before, a confluence that happens rarely when an idea whose time has come meets leadership who agrees.”
Perhaps this was a little out there to say, Kuehl added, but “incarceration is itself an experiment, and it’s an experiment that has failed.”
This triggered the day’s loudest pre-vote cheers from the crowd of community members and jail reform advocates who packed the meeting, many of them wearing matching t-shirts, some orange, some black.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn, delivered her own version of the message after Kuehl had finished.
“We have had a paradigm shift on this board,” she said. It has become “clear to us that we could not create this ‘care-first jail-last’ model within the confines of this contract.”
The supervisor pointed out, however, that she believed “something should be built to replace Men’s Central Jail,” because there will “always” be a need for “some custody beds.”
Yet, what, if anything, the supervisors should build in MCJ’s place, “still needs to be determined.”
To address this question Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hahn partnered on a second, related motion — one that Hahn says she believes will offer “that path forward.”
“We’re instructing the CEO to report back on how to proceed with demolishing” the jail “as soon as possible,” Hahn said, adding that MCJ is “an abomination.”
This second of three jail construction-related motion also calls for a report on the top-priority maintenance needs within the current jail so that the county can “uphold the constitutional rights of incarcerated individuals.”
Additionally, the CEO will be tasked with convening a workgroup of county departments and other stakeholders to “synthesize” a handful of soon-to-be-released criminal justice system reports and make recommendations for how best to reform the criminal justice system and what to do about the crumbling jail.
The workgroup’s report must also include recommendations for reallocating 2019-2020 county budget funds set aside for the jail project toward alternatives to incarceration and other reforms.
“As responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, we need to take the time to do this right and ensure we make the most of this investment, not only in financial resources but, more importantly, in human lives,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas.
A third motion, this one by Supes Solis and Hahn, “calls for much-needed data and research on the types and numbers of diversion programs that we need to reduce our jail population and provide the mental health services that are so important,” Hahn said.
“Without all this critical information, in my opinion, we can’t successfully reshape our criminal justice system.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger, the lone vote against canceling the McCarthy contract, expressed concern that approving Tuesday’s motion would ultimately delay the replacement of the crumbling jail, as the formulation of a new plan would take at least another three to four years. By comparison, the county’s estimated McCarthy build completion date would land during fiscal year 2024-2025, according to LA County CEO Sachi Hamai.
(Everyone agrees that Men’s Central Jail is in such serious disrepair that it has long been a chronic danger to inmates as well as the health workers and members of the sheriff’s department who work in the jail.)
“I will not vote for scrapping [the McCarthy contract] until I know we have the capacity to support our sheriff’s deputies,” Barger said.
The board, she added, “must be realistic” about its goals for the MCJ replacement.
The original McCarthy jail construction contract was informed by a 2015 Health Management Associates (HMA) report, which estimated a new jail would have to hold 6,700 beds to meet the county’s needs, even taking into account diversion and other community-based services.
“I’m at a loss to understand why this board is afraid to move forward with something that takes into consideration” ODR’s diversion numbers, Barger said, emphatically waving a copy of the HMA report.
(Barger was referring to the LA County Office of Diversion and Reentry or ODR.)
LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva appeared to agree with Barger’s assessment of the diversion situation.
He and his department were “fully in support” of the county’s efforts to divert mentally ill people from the jails, the sheriff said, but he questioned ODR’s estimates for future diversion.
“I just don’t see how” you can divert 56 percent of the population, Villanueva said.
At this point, the sheriff outlined a “snapshot” of what kind of crimes those in the county’s custody right now are “in for.”
After that, he ramped up his argument further.
If Men’s Central Jail is not replaced, Villnueava said, his department will have trouble complying with the terms of the 2015 Rosas v. Baca settlement—-a list of legally mandated reforms and oversight having to do with force and violence inside the jails. (It wasn’t quite clear how the cancellation of the McCarthy contract would prevent deputies working in the jails from continuing to behave constitutionally.)
Then Villanueva spent the bulk of his time before the board telling, in minute chronological detail, the harrowing story of a man who was arrested in July 2018 for breaking into his mother’s house, taking things, and threatening her with violence. The Office of Diversion and Reentry subsequently approved him for diversion.
The point of the story was that, eight months later, the man, “Chris,” threatened his mother again before again breaking into her dwelling, and slashing and stabbing her 11 times, said Villanueva who described the pool of blood surrounding the victim, who was found in her garage.
(Fortunately, the mother survived her awful and violent ordeal.)
The story, Villanueva said, “illustrates the pitfalls and the dark side of diversion: it can be dangerous, it can be deadly, and it almost was for this lady.”
The ODR replies.
After the sheriff finished, Supervisor Solis suggested to board chair Hahn that perhaps it might be a good idea for Peter Espinoza, who is head of the ODR, to be the next speaker, since the work of his office had just been shot at, so to speak, multiple times.
Not surprisingly, Espinoza disagreed vehemently with the sheriff’s claims about the limitations and dangers of diversion, especially Villanueva’s Willy Horton-esque “dark side” narrative.
The case Villanueva referenced, the former judge said, was one of four bad outcomes that ODR reported to the board.
“Everybody knows,” said Espinoza, that there are inherent dangers associated with removing people from the jail and placing them in the community, “but the fact of the matter is that most of these people are going to leave the jail at some point.”
Yet, numbers suggest, Espinoza told the board, that those who participate in ODR’s diversion program are far better prepared to return to their community than their non-diverted counterparts. “Our strategy of careful supervision and maintenance in housing with clinical services on-site reduces the likelihood” that a person will go on to commit future crimes.”
(According to a Rand study, 91 percent of people who are housed through ODR remain in housing beyond six months. Approximately 74 percent remain after one year.)
Of ODR’s participants with felony convictions who have been diverted, Espinoza said, only 14 percent have re-offended after one year.
“Those are remarkably low numbers,” he said. The rate of recidivism among probationers who are not served by the ODR program “is much higher.”
The ODR is not “grabbing people by the hand, taking them out of jail, and wishing them well,” Espinoza said, his expression flinty. It is a rigorous process.
The way it works is, lawyers, judges, and even mental health workers send the department candidates for diversion, he said. Then, the diversion team does “a careful clinical assessment.” If approved by ODR, the case is then submitted to the court, “where it undergoes a very rigorous adversarial process involving the DA, the public defender,” and “in most instances, probation,” before a judge makes a final determination.
“Anyone who believes that somehow what we are putting the public at risk through the work that we do is wrong,” he said.
Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, also had sharp criticism for Sheriff Villanueva’s idea that “jail is safety, and diversion is dangerous.”
Eliasberg cited the Office of Diversion and Reentry’s 86 percent success rate (one year after entering diversion) as evidence against the sheriff’s argument in favor of more jail beds.
By comparison, Eliasberg cited a 2007 study from USC’s Keck School of Medicine, which calculated that 95 percent of the inmates in Twin Towers who suffered from severe mental illness had been arrested at least once before the most recent arrest that led to their incarceration.
Eliasberg also told the board that the HMA study had “major flaws,” one of which, according to a letter sent to the board by Eliasberg, the ACLU, and some other related groups, was its assertion that “diversion is not appropriate for people who are the most acutely mentally ill.”
The Office of Diversion and Reentry, Eliasberg said, is disproving that idea every day.
James Wheeler, the vice president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, or ALADS, the union that represents most of the LASD’s rank and file, was another who spoke against canceling the McCarthy contract.
If the board trashed the contract, Wheeler said, the supervisors would be “preventing progress on a vitally important component of our county’s criminal justice system. Your motion sends a message to your deputies that you are willing to accept options that we believe are not good for public safety.”
But there will be a significant price tag attached to the kind of change in priorities the board appears to be embracing, said the line-up of doctors who had come to express their support of the motion.
Without drastically expanding the mental health and substance use services available in the community, the vision for reduced reliance on incarceration will flounder, said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Director of the LA County Department of Public Health.
“Care in the community is absolutely essential for diversion to work,” Dr. Ferrer said, noting that all of the county’s substance abuse programs, and even intensive outpatient programs, had waiting lists.
In the midst of her presentation, Ferrer revealed her own experience with addiction, a story that was evidently not widely known prior to Tuesday.
She was able to afford treatment, Ferrar told the board, unlike most LA County residents who struggle with substance abuse. Thus, she did not land in jail, she said. Instead, she found healing—and went on to oversee a department of 4,000 public health workers. (And even prior to coming to LA, Ferrer was a star in the realm of public health in general.
“There are people like me,” said Ferrer, who are “proof that treatment and care instead of jail help people who are addicted go on and live complete lives and contribute to their family” and community. “If I had gone to jail, my life would be extraordinarily different, and perhaps very, very difficult,” she said.
She did not want to lose sight of the fact that what the county was attempting was “a risky business,” and that it is “particularly hard for people struggling with addiction,” Ferrer said. “Many times those addictions are driving our illegal behavior.” But addiction is “a struggle that requires support, treatment, and compassion” — not criminalization.
With “investments” in community treatment, Ferrer concluded, will come “success.”
The need for serious investment
The county is going to have to invest big, for the “care-first” model, to truly succeed, agreed Dr. Jonathan Sherin, Director of LA County’s Department of Mental Health. It will require a level of investment “in our communities in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever seen,” he said.
If county leaders fail to address the fact that “our health and human service systems have failed” our communities, leaving law enforcement agencies to pick up the slack, said Dr. Sherin, the “trajectory of requiring more and more custody” beds will continue to climb.
In response to the calls for more community care beds, Barger suggested the board examine possible ways to use Measure H money to create more mental health beds for people who cycle between homelessness and incarceration.
Some advocates like Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Reentry Project, were optimistic.
“I know that there are solutions – real-time, real community solutions – in each of your districts,” said Burton. “If you would look in your district and see what’s available, scalable, we’d be able to find a solution.”
(Burton launched her now nationally-known reentry program, demonstrably helps women returning from prison get back on their feet, after she had, herself, cycled in and out of incarceration for 15 years in the wake of her five-year-old son’s death.)
The jails were the wrong solution, said former ER physician and current doctor in the Twin Towers jail. “As a frontline provider in Twin Towers,” he told the board, he wanted them to understand that “custody settings can really undermine health and health care.” The issue of conflicting goals means that often, “custody and penalization take priority over care and treatment,” the doctor said, before calling for expanded community-based services.
The same point was emphasized by a mother, struggling to hold back tears, who told the board that her mentally ill son waited five weeks to get medication while in jail. “He’s received no therapy,” Danielle Curtis told the board. “He’s been on multiple psychiatric holds while he’s been in jail.”
Another speaker, a young man named Justin Marks told the story of his brother, Jared Marks, a veteran and registered nurse, who, because of mental illness, has been in an out of jail and now will spend the next five years in prison for a charge that involved no injuries, and no property damaged. “Every time that my brother’s been taken away, he’s been given back to us in pieces,” Marks said. “Every time he goes into jail, he comes back traumatized.”
Valencia Harrelson, a nursing assistant in MCJ, beseeched the board to take action to improve conditions in the jail system immediately. “Although we support the change,” Harrelson said, “we need to talk about what’s happening now.”
The stories got the board’s attention.
Expressing concern about the “serious allegations” brought before the board regarding health care in the jail system, Supervisor Barger argued that the board had “an obligation” to direct the Office of Inspector General to “go in and conduct an audit on correctional health services.”
“Care first” became the day’s rallying cry both for the board and for the well over 200 advocates who signed up to address the board before the final vote. The speakers came from Reform LA Jails, Youth Justice Coalition, Community Coalition, the ACLU’s jail project, Just Leadership, Homeboy Industries, the Anti-recidivism Coalition or ARC, and many similar organizations.
“For the last 20 years,” said Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Reform LA Jails and Black Lives Matter, “I have been working on this issue specifically with my sibling, who was brutally beaten” while in an LA County jail, and who “has never received the treatment he deserved.” Finally achieving a vote to reject a new jail facility, felt “surreal,” Cullors said. “I feel proud to be an Angeleno today.”
“This is a historic moment,” agreed Youth Justice Coalition’s Kim McGill, who also knows, firsthand, the effects of incarceration.
“We’re about to now crush another piece of the most expensive jail expansion plan in world history, but we still have the largest jail system on the planet.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the mental health treatment center plan cost $1.7 million, rather than $1.7 billion.