LA County Strikes Down Plans for Women’s and Mental Health Jail

Eunisses Hernandez of jail accountability group JusticeLA speaks to a crowd outside the Los Angeles County building before the Board of Supervisors’ vote on proposals for a women’s jail expansion project in Mira Loma and construction of a mental health jail in downtown LA on Feb. 12, 2019. (Martin Macias Jr./CNS)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to build a mental health facility downtown, rather than a previously planned jail, and also abandoned plans to move a women’s jail from South LA to a larger site in the high desert city of Lancaster.

Supervisors had previously postponed a vote on the $215 million construction and design contract for the new Mira Loma Women’s Center project citing concerns about the location – the site is more than 70 miles from LA – and a lack of women-centered planning for the facility.

Nationally, at least 80 percent of incarcerated women are mothers, but travelling to Mira Loma would require visiting families to travel up to three hours one-way on public transportation.

“Mira Loma would not have best served women, their families, or their community,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said Tuesday. “Now, we must determine a path forward that enhances diversion, supports women and their families, and therefore protects public safety.”

By rejecting the Mira Loma project in a 4-0 vote, the county will now have to direct at least $150,000 in county funds to two developers who submitted design plans.

The county may also lose at least $100 million in state grant funding slated for the project, which would have renovated an existing detention facility.

The project was opposed by a number of officials, including Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who abstained from voting on the jail, introduced a motion after the vote to direct the county to explore affordable housing development on the Mira Loma site.

Supervisors also approved a motion to develop gender inclusive policies at Century Regional Detention Facility, the current 2,000 bed women’s jail, and develop an alternative to the now-cancelled Mira Loma project.

The motion, coauthored by Solis and Sheila Kuehl, calls for a study on the conditions that result in the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of women in the county.

“We have to significantly re-assess our approach to the women in our custody,” Kuehl said in a statement. “Most of them are arrested for non-violent crimes, and, if sentenced to incarceration, they must be provided with programs that are tailored to meet women’s needs.”

A 2016 Vera Institute for Justice report found that women in jail are disproportionately people of color, overwhelmingly poor and low-income, survivors of violence and trauma and have high rates of physical and mental illness and substance abuse.

In a related vote, supervisors were set to decide on a design-build contract for a mental health-focused jail – known as the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility – to replace the current Men’s Central Jail in downtown LA.

Officials touted the proposed facility where treatment could be offered to the growing population of detained individuals in the jail who are living with mental illness.

County health officials told supervisors on Tuesday that the number of detained individuals with mental illness stands at roughly 3,100 out of more than 7,000 inmates.

Instead, supervisors voted to approve a $2 billion contract for a 3,800 bed facility, called the Mental Health Treatment Center, which will replace the Men’s Central Jail downtown. It will be operated and staffed by the Department of Health Services rather than the sheriff’s department.

If built, the facility would be the largest mental health treatment facility in the country.

“Thousands of people in our jail system right now suffer from severe mental illness and are not getting the treatment that they need,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, who voted for the project. “We don’t need a new jail.”

Black Lives Matter LA co-founder Patrisse Cullors spoke out against building a new jail, saying “You can’t get well in a cell.”

But in a statement, Solis, who voted against the proposal, said the process was “rushed” and lacked input from residents, particularly from her district, where the facility would be built.

“This facility would be built in my district, the First District, without any input from the surrounding community, particularly from the residents and business owners of Chinatown,” Solis said.

The decision also drew mixed reactions from jail accountability and mental health advocates who said in public comments Tuesday they appreciate the elimination of the proposed jail but would prefer to have mental health treatment centers in each of the five supervisorial districts, instead of one large facility.

Calvin Callier, a man who was previously incarcerated, told supervisors that local treatment centers developed with residents’ input will work best for communities.

“When I was in prison, it would take a long time for doctors to get to inmates that needed treatment,” Callier said. “Large scale doesn’t work.”

Advocates also said the county should expand the capacity of its medical and mental health care system through mental health emergency responders, supportive housing, hospital beds and community-based facilities.

 In a statement, Sheriff Villanueva said he is committed to “providing the best therapeutic setting for those in the custody of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” and looks forward to finding ways to keep people with mental illness “out of the criminal justice system altogether.”

But Villanueva also said the current jail facilities are dilapidated and not designed for what they’re currently holding.

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