Board clears way for $2B jail

May 8, 2014 

The grim Men's Central Jail will be razed for one that focuses on the needs of mentally ill inmates.

On the outskirts of a gentrifying downtown Los Angeles, where trendy eateries and pricey lofts are drawing a wave of hip urban pioneers, there sits a residence of a vastly different sort–“an antiquated, dungeon-like facility,” home to some 5,000 people, many of them mentally ill.

That’s how a blue-ribbon citizen’s commission in 2012 described the county’s notorious Men’s Central Jail, which has been around since the Kennedy Administration. More recently, the so-called MCJ was ground zero in the Sheriff’s Department brutality scandal that led to the indictments of 20 deputies and the departure of Sheriff Lee Baca.

For a decade, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has been debating various plans to replace the old lockup with one that reflects the latest thinking in modern jail construction and management. Each time, the price climbed. The stakes were rising, too, as the federal government intensified its oversight of how the county was providing constitutional care for thousands of inmates with mental health problems.

So on Tuesday, under increasing pressure to act, a divided board set in motion what promises to be the most expensive construction project in the county’s history. It approved a nearly $2 billion plan to replace Men’s Central Jail with a facility designed to confront the unique architectural and staffing requirements for treating mentally ill inmates in county custody.

The board majority, which also voted to move forward the renovation of Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster to house women, picked one of five options for the new downtown jail provided by Vanir Construction Management, which was hired as a consultant by the supervisors. The company will not be a bidder on the project.

While there was no disagreement among board members about the need to replace the Men’s Central Jail, the potential price of the undertaking drew strong warnings from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. He cast the lone vote against authorizing the expenditure of $30 million to begin design work and an environmental review of Vanir’s “Option 1B.” (Voting in favor of the plan were Supervisors Don Knabe, Gloria Molina, and Michael D. Antonovich. Mark Ridley-Thomas abstained.)

Yaroslavsky argued that the board should have been given alternatives to incarceration that might reduce the number of mentally ill inmates in the new jail, thus possibly lowering the construction and operating costs borne by taxpayers.

“I think I have been, as a member of this board, somewhat shortchanged by not having that information available to me as I’m being asked to make a decision—a $2 billion decision,” Yaroslavsky said, adding: “All of us have been around long enough to know that if you’re telling us it’s $2 billion today, it’s not going to go down. It’s only going to go up.”

Yaroslavsky urged the board to delay a vote until more information on diversion programs for the mentally ill was provided, rather than being forced to decide solely on a series of construction scenarios. He also noted that District Atty. Jackie Lacey was leading a high-powered task force on mental health and substance abuse diversion that could inform the board’s ultimate decision.

Testifying before the board, Lacey said that since a big chunk of the new jail’s cost is for the mentally ill, “you should know that there’s a committed group of professionals …who are looking for alternative ways to address this issue. We’re serious about it, and I’m optimistic.”

Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who oversees custody operations, acknowledged the importance of increasing capacity for inmates placed in community diversion programs. “I don’t think the right solution is just build, build, build, build. It’s too expensive. It’s not sustainable.”

But, she said, such efforts must “run along parallel tracks” with the design and construction of a new jail, which is essential for the inmates and the county’s legal position with the federal government.

Supervisor Antonovich, who, with Molina, pushed the vote forward, agreed: “If we don’t act,” he said, “the choice will not be ours, but up to a receiver who will force us to act, at a much higher cost.”

Posted 5/8/14

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