In landmark move, L.A. County will replace Men’s Central Jail with mental health hospital for inmates

Los Angeles County supervisors narrowly approved a plan Tuesday to tear down the dungeon-like Men’s Central Jail downtown and build at least one mental health treatment facility in its place.

The new plan modifies a $2.2-billion proposal that would have created the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility, which was slated to house 3,885 “inmate patients” in a rehabilitation-focused center in the footprint of the Central Jail, which was built in 1963.

Under a key provision approved Tuesday, the Department of Health Services would oversee the new facility, rather than the Sheriff’s Department, which currently manages all jail operations. The new space, called the Mental Health Treatment Center, would be staffed by the Department of Mental Health, with a limited number of deputies providing security.

The county would also consider building a series of smaller mental health centers instead of a single, large hospital. The plan marks a signature shift in philosophy in housing inmates and a recognition of the changing nature of the jail population: Inmates who are medically or mentally ill now make up an estimated 70% of people held in the county jail system.

“Sheriff’s deputies will never receive enough training to become mental health professionals, nor should they,” said Supervisor Janice Hahn, who coauthored the motion outlining the plan with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “Jailers armed with Tasers and pepper spray are inherently detrimental to creating the safe environment necessary for mental health care.”

Hahn said the ultimate goal is to divert inmates to community-based care wherever possible.

Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl opposed the move in a 3-2 vote, arguing the plan might still allow for the construction of a massive building with thousands of beds, which they say would lead to poor outcomes for people suffering from mental illness.

The revised plan would keep the underlying construction contract that was slated for the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility and instead use the $2.2 billion to build something else. Kuehl and Solis, though, said the contract may not allow enough flexibility to create a completely different project.

“It’s still a jail. It’s still walls. It’s still preventing people from having freedom, the possibility of even rehabilitation,” Solis said.

Kuehl said the new project, if it contained close to the original number of beds provided under the old proposal, would house a larger number of people than all the county hospitals combined. California’s largest state-run mental health hospital operates about 1,500 beds.

Ridley-Thomas said the plan does not mandate a certain number of beds.

“There is nothing here that is irreversible,” he said. He added that the more urgent goal is to raze the decrepit Central Jail, an outdated lockup that houses people in long rows of cells. “Having them there one day further is simply unacceptable.”

The board’s action Tuesday means the Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility, which had been in progress since 2015, will no longer be built. It had been billed as representing a “paradigm shift” in the treatment of inmates.

That plan called for inmates currently held at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, the primary site for inmates with mental illness or drug addiction, to be moved to the new facility. Men’s Central Jail inmates would have been transferred to Twin Towers.

Community activists have long opposed the construction of any new jails, arguing that the billions of dollars devoted to a new facility would be better spent on reentry programs, supportive housing, community-based services and other alternatives. More than a hundred advocates for jail reform, dressed in orange shirts, filled the auditorium Tuesday to oppose the mental health treatment facility, arguing it would become a dressed-up jail.

Eunisses Hernandez of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization dedicated to reducing the jail population, said the supervisors borrowed the activists’ talking points in advocating for decentralized treatment facilities but approved a contract that might force the county to build a large jail-like facility.

“In the end they have just approved a contract to create a mental health jail, a jail with a bow on it,” Hernandez said. Still, she said it was a partial victory that years of activism have pushed officials to seek alternatives to incarceration.

Also Tuesday, the supervisors voted to kill a longtime proposal to convert the Mira Loma detention facility in Lancaster into a women’s jail. They supported a move introduced by Supervisor Kathryn Barger to examine whether affordable housing could be built on the site instead.

The supervisors also approved initiatives to create programming addressing women’s needs in jail, to study best practices for serving women and those with mental illness and substance abuse addiction, and explore how to expand diversion programs and alternatives to custody.

Learn more at the Los Angeles Times.

Kate McCartyL.A., incarceration