Elected officials in Los Angeles County decided to scrap a $1.7 billion jail project last week after anti-incarceration activists convinced them to change course, adopting a new “care first, jail last” approach.
The Board of Supervisors, which governs the most populous county in the United States, voted 4-1 to cancel a contract it had approved with McCarthy Building Companies. The deal called for the construction of a modern facility to replace the aging Men’s Central Jail in downtown L.A.
A coalition of prison abolition advocates spent nearly two years rallying the community against the plan, arguing the money would be better spent on social services and alternatives to incarceration. The abandoned proposal had been revised several times, ultimately amended to the point that the new facility would have been managed by the Department of Mental Health rather than the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which currently oversees the nation’s largest jail system. Opponents of the prospective “Mental Health Treatment Center” insisted it was still designed like a penal institution.
“Before we move forward with building an expensive new jail, we must address the mental and physical health needs of our jail population, many of whom can be safely diverted to community-based treatment facilities, which have better outcomes, and thereby increase public safety,” said L.A. County Sup. Hilda Solis, who previously served as U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Barack Obama.
Officials estimate that 70% of the inmates held in the county jail system are medically or mentally ill.
“Mental health care cannot be provided effectively within a custody environment and we must be focused on a ‘care first, jail last’ model,” Solis said. “Men’s Central Jail must be demolished, but we must replace it within a criminal justice system that includes modern, decentralized countywide continuum of non-custody community-based care facilities.”
“I am thankful that additional information and community advocacy in the past several months has brought us to this important realization.”
Solis joined “Justice LA” jail reform activists at a press conference last Tuesday before the Board voted to kill the contract. She co-authored the motion along with Sup. Sheila Kuehl, who recently referred to incarceration as “an experiment that has failed.” Each of the five county supervisors represents approximately 2 million people.
“We are demanding an end to mass incarceration in the U.S. and our county’s investment in policing and jails,” she explained in an editorial written shortly after the group’s launch, later referencing “our movement’s call for abolition.”
The Los Angeles Times describes Men’s Central Jail, built in 1963, as “dungeon-like” and “antiquated.” According to the New York Times, it “is often referred to as America’s largest mental health institution, a dystopian, run-down facility where mentally ill inmates are often chained to the furniture.” Still, lawmakers opted to start over and develop a new strategy rather than continuing with the modified plan that had initially been approved in 2015.
County Counsel predicts it will take three or four years of bureaucracy for another jail replacement project to come before the Board.
“This issue around criminalizing mentally ill people is actually not just an L.A. issue,” Cullors told the NY Times. “L.A. is the microcosm of what’s happening across the country. You can go to Cook County in Chicago. You can go to Rikers Island in New York.”
“If Los Angeles gets this right and is able to build a model, this could be a blueprint for the rest of the country,” she continued.
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @JeffreyCawood.