Margaret Harris has surveyed the scene in South-Central Los Angeles for 30 years.
She watches as her neighbors disappear behind barred windows and doors come nightfall, afraid of what might happen if they venture outside. She sees the children dodge dope dealers on their way to school, and then slip past gang members on their way home.
The last thing the area needs, she feels, is a jail--rising up as yet another symbol of failure and despair.
"That's not anything that would build up morale, to walk out of your house and see a big prison sitting there," said Harris, a longtime resident and president of the Southwest Crime Prevention Coalition. "I don't feel we should have to accept it."
Others in the area agree.
A coalition of neighborhood watch groups and community organizations, united as "People for Jobs, Not Jails," has launched a petition drive and information campaign to fight construction of a proposed 2,000-bed detention facility in their area.
"People seem to think that because we have problems down here, that somehow we don't have the same needs and desires as other communities," said Kerman Maddox, organizer of the campaign which began in early August. "We want our neighborhood to prosper like anybody else."
Currently, the jail is little more than a recommendation made by Los Angeles County supervisors a few months ago as part of a vote of support for a proposed South-Central criminal justice center.
The main push for the justice center on the legislative front came from Assemblywoman Teresa P. Hughes (D-Los Angeles), who envisioned it to include job counseling and social services as well as courtrooms to process misdemeanor and felony cases.
But county staffers contend--based on a county feasibility study completed in April--that a justice center should also include a $290-million jail to house those awaiting trial in the 57 courtrooms.
The county board endorsed the idea, based on the argument that a jail next to the courthouse would provide extra space, desperately needed by the county. It also would cut down the costs of transporting prisoners between jails and courts across town, county officials said.
But the proposal quickly brought to the surface a myriad of emotions that encompass both the frustrations of those in law enforcement, struggling to house more than 22,000 prisoners in cells built for fewer than 14,000, and the anger of a working-class community that feels it is constantly the dumping ground for projects politicians would not think to put elsewhere.
For now, the matter of the court center--and by extension, the jail--is in political limbo.
Hughes' measure--technically an amendment to another bill--is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee until the next legislative session begins in January. And it is highly unlikely that any jail will be built in South-Central without additional legislation proposing it, something Hughes refuses to do unless her constituents give her a clear signal that they want one.
They say they don't--and they won't. And to make sure that their position is clear, the coalition continues collecting signatures on petitions already filled with 1,000 names, to present to Hughes at a public hearing tentatively scheduled for November.
"We have won just one battle in what may be a long, drawn-out war," said Maddox, a public affairs consultant and South-Central resident.
Residents do not deny that crime is rampant in their community. Deputy Police Chief William Rathburn, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau, which serves South-Central Los Angeles, says the area has a "disproportionate percentage of the (city's) violent crimes," with 46% of the homicides in Los Angeles last year occurring in that community.
But many say the community's high crime rate has become just a convenient excuse for putting an undesirable facility in an area where officials feel residents have the least power to fight it.
An exact location for the center/jail has not been decided, but anywhere in the area is too close, angry residents say.
Residents also say they fear that some people would lose their homes to the facility, which would cover between 29 and 40 acres. And they worry about the danger of jailbreaks.
Many in the area support the proposed center, which would allow residents to monitor the performance of judges and alleviate the problems of lengthy travel and expensive parking fees accumulated when going to courthouses downtown. And many say they would have no objection to a true holding facility.
But 2,000 beds, according to Harris, is neither a holding facility nor a jail. "That," she said, "is a prison."
"We need to have enough beds simply to serve that community," said County Chief Administrative Officer Richard Dixon in response to questions about the facility's size.