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For Hopeless, a Special Brand, Inside and Out

May 15, 1986|JEANNINE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

Sybil Brand walked down the hallways of the women's jail with no sign of trepidation. And why not? Inmates waved and called, "Hi, Miss Sybil!" when she passed by.

One young woman rushed up and breathlessly asked, "Are you Sybil Brand? I've always wanted to meet you." Shaking the woman's hand, the 83-year-old Brand replied, "Hi, honey, how are ya?"

It's not surprising that Sybil Brand is a celebrity inside jail walls. After all, this is the Sybil Brand Institute for Women, Los Angeles County's custodial institution for women, named in honor of her efforts in getting it built. But Brand's involvement is in more than name only; as chairman of the Institutional Inspection Commission she is the jail's watchdog. To the inmates she serves as a confidant, and she relies on them to tell her when things go wrong. It's a job she's held for 26 years, and she doesn't intend to give it up.

Between her job as a Los Angeles County commissioner and her involvements as a philanthropist, her days often stretch into the late hours.

Eight pages of her 12-page biography are taken up with her connections to such groups as the Leukemia Foundation, the Braille Institute, Vista del Mar and the Jeffrey Foundation for Handicapped Children, as well as the commendations and awards she has received over the years from organizations as divergent as West Point Academy and the Native Daughters of the Golden West. Framed and Perma-Plaqued, the latter cram the walls of her office in the Hall of Administration.

That office is where she conducts business four days a week as chairman of the Institutional Inspection Commission. It's been 42 years altogether that she's been a county commissioner.

Her closest association of all the correctional facilities is with the Sybil Brand Institute. It sits on a hill on the outskirts of Los Angeles, a building that would look like a grade school were it not for the high fences and loops of barbed wire that surround it. The bronze plaque that bears Brand's name has become obscured by a large table and overgrown potted plant, but there is no symbolism there. She is still very much a force behind the prison.

Once every three weeks, by order of the Board of Supervisors, she makes an official inspection, taking a commissioner or two along with her as she checks on the dining facilities, the cleanliness of the rooms, the health and comfort of the inmates. Brand will even go solo on occasion to have lunch and chat with the captain and the officers.

One of the latter kinds of trips started with lunch in the officers' dining room, followed by a lengthy tour. As she walked by one of the dormitories, Brand lamented that years ago the rooms that now hold rows of double bunk beds used to be honor dorms, single rooms the inmates could decorate the way they liked.

"Oh, you should have seen them," she said. "They were beautiful. No other prison had them. People used to come here from all over to see the honor dorms."

But the institute suffers from chronic overcrowding. It has a rated capacity of 910 and now houses slightly more than 2,000 inmates. Until a new facility that will house 500 is completed, the institute will continue to bulge.

Two Beauty Parlors

She walked down the halls and pointed out the various features of the facility like a proud grandmother showing off the accomplishments of her grandchildren. Two beauty parlors (one in minimum security, one in maximum) were donated by Brand. But she seemed even happier showing a visitor the ceramics shop and pointing out the figures that the inmates had fired and painted themselves. "I collect clowns, you know. When I come here I buy 'em all," she said as she pulled a few down from the shelves.

Next it was over to the outdoor area where inmates learn how to set tile. "Let me tell you," Brand said, "these girls do a better job than the people you hire to come to your house."

In the sewing room, inmates bent over sewing machines looked up as she entered, some smiled and said hello. Brand decides to buy a few clown dolls that the inmates make primarily to give to needy children at Christmas. When she's ready to leave, her purchases are boxed and ready for her at the gate house.

There is no typical day for Sybil Brand, although they are all long, starting early when she gets up to care for her ailing husband, Harry, former head of publicity and advertising at 20th Century Fox. (Their son George is a film editor.) Four days a week she's at the commission office. Nights are reserved for charity parties, and Brand can be seen at many of them.

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