One of the biggest jail complexes in the world is located in downtown LA. Men’s Central Jail has enough space for more than 5,000 inmates. It also has a troubled history — chronic overcrowding, violence, inmate abuse at the hands of sheriff’s deputies, and an increasing number of inmates with mental illness.
The building is also just old. Critics say it’s falling apart. For years, county leaders were looking to replace it with a new $2 billion mental health facility. But critics say it would wind up being another jail in disguise. Last year, supervisors canceled that plan.
Now with the intense focus on criminal justice and the spread of COVID-19, county officials have voted again to demolish Men’s Central Jail and replace it (within a year) with so-called “Restorative Care Villages.”
LA County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis authored the two motions ushering the closure, promoting what is a “care first, jails last” approach.
KCRW: How will these “Restorative Care Villages” work? Are you saying LA should get rid of jails altogether?
Supervisor Hilda L. Solis: “No. First of all, let me be clear. … This has been a work in progress for several years. And we're talking about prioritizing ‘care first.’ … Mental health is one of the most leading causes of people to be incarcerated.
What we're planning here is to work on looking at how we can refit, retool some of the other existing jails so that they are more ‘care first’ in their delivery of service. That can happen and should happen, and that was in the plans even before COVID started.
But now what we're saying is: Since we no longer have funding to build a replacement for Men’s Central Jail, our attempt here is to do ‘care first.’ So Restorative Care Villages are — I don't want to say a substitute — but the actual treatment, therapeutic treatment, mental health treatment, wraparound services. That is really what we're looking at. And those villages would be placed on our property.
Right adjacent to USC Medical Center, for example, the big hospital, we have tremendous parking space there. We have an old women's hospital that we're going to tear down. We're going to be putting up recuperative beds. We're also going to have step-down services so people can get rehabilitation.
But not just that … if they need a sobering center there, if they need to have a wellness center, if they need to have people who can come in and get treatment for just about anything health-wise but also in terms of education, and training, and jobs.
Those are the things that we're able to couple and do it in a manner that is holistic, that also … respects the surrounding community, creating jobs, but also creating this wellness approach. And that's what we're really striving for.
It's not a new concept. This has been going on in other parts of the country, in New York and other places. Why can't the county use our own resources, our own property, and start to invest here?”
These villages are for inmates with mental health issues. There are thousands of other inmates who don't have mental health issues. Are you saying the other jails are for those inmates?
“It will be for people that also are homeless that come in and out of jail. It will also be for people that are just experiencing mental illness and as a result, maybe have had to spend time in probation or what have you. Young people as well, because we know that those youngsters have to be treated. We got to get them out of that cycle of … going back to jail and committing crimes and getting well.
… We're going to do it with the Office of Diversion and Reentry. [It’s] led by Judge Peter Espinoza, who's already been able to provide up to 500 beds for people that left the jail based on an assessment with the courts, with the DA, and their offices, to be able to place people in communities. So that's also what we're going to be aligned with.
So it isn't all going to be that folks are going to go on the Restorative Village properties. We're going to also integrate this throughout the county, in communities, and also build up the capacity so that we have that infrastructure.
But by no means am I saying, ‘Oh, open the doors, and everyone that's a criminal or has a history of serious felony convictions is going to be led out.’ I'm not saying that. And I couldn't do that anyway. That's up to a judge.”
If you're talking about transferring inmates [without mental health issues] from Men’s Central to other jails, will there be an overcrowding problem at those other jails?
“I don't think so. No, because we've seen a decrease in the jail population. This would have never happened had COVID not struck the county the way it did. It actually allowed for the sheriff to release well over 5000 inmates. And we know currently that about 40 to 50% of the current population there have a mental illness or some type of need to get therapeutic and health treatment — not in the jail.
That also puts our health providers at risk many times too because some are reluctant to even go into that jail and provide the service. It's an old jail. It's more than 50 years old.”
You said health providers might be reluctant to go into the jails. But now you're bringing inmates with mental health issues to them, to campuses across the county. Have you had pushback?
“No, no, because not all of them are severely violent felons. That would be separate … beds that would have to be provided with custody and security. We know that. But the majority of people are not in that category. And I think that's what the big misnomer has been in information that's been put out by those detractors who wouldn't like to see this happen.”
You haven’t had pushback from those campuses?
“No, not from my campus. We've been working on this now for three years, and people are very excited. And the medical staff there, mental health, as well as folks that live around the community, we've invited them to also be stakeholders here because … it impacts the surrounding area.”
How much is this plan going to cost, and does the county have the money?
“Actually, it is a bigger cost savings, in my opinion. Because now when you're treating these individuals in a more holistic health setting, you can actually get reimbursement from the state for much of this treatment.”
The state doesn't have a lot of money either right now. California’s deficit exceeds $50 billion.
“Yeah, but we received this money now. … It's better to move this towards the health care since we're seeing the realignment monies and sales tax monies all impacting AB-109 and all of that. We need to transition, and this is forcing us to look at other alternatives.”
The cost will be less than $2 billion?
“That's what our work group will look at. Because you're thinking it's going to cost $1 billion. It could be less. I'm pretty sure that we'll be able to bring that down because we're also drawing in other types of resources.”
Your timeline is to have Men’s Central torn down within a year. Will this happen? There have been so many plans to tear down Men’s Central, and here we are again.
“When have you had a COVID epidemic? And when have you had a more progressive board at the County Board of Supervisors, okay? That's my question to you.”
So we’ll have you back on a year from now, and find out if Men’s Central has been torn down.
“We always can set our goals. And there is a current work group that's already working on this — that's being run with [the] Sheriff, with all the entities, the healthcare entities, as well as … Judge Espinoza, the director of ODR [Office of Diversion and Reentry]. And that has been ongoing. So all we're doing is saying, ‘Let's integrate this model because that's where we want to go anyway.’
So it is good that we get the information on both tracks together, and we start to begin really resourcing where the need is, and how we can hurriedly get this out. Because I think there is an urgency. We don't want more people to be sick in our jail, especially with COVID. It looks like it's going to be around for a while.”
Read the motion by Hilda L. Solis and Sheila Kuehl, plus the amendment.
This story written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Christian Bordal