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Crowding problems grow as jail sits vacant

After 14 months, L.A. County hasn't started the renovations needed to reopen Sybil Brand.

October 16, 2007|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

For months, Los Angeles County jail officials have been waiting to reopen a long-shuttered women's facility to help ease some of the overcrowding that plagues the rest of the massive and violence-prone system.

But 14 months after the Board of Supervisors voted to spend more than $100 million to refurbish the Sybil Brand Institute, an antiquated structure on a hilltop near East Los Angeles, not a bit of work has been accomplished.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Supervisor's aide: An article in Tuesday's California section about efforts to refurbish a former women's jail in East Los Angeles misspelled the first name of Roxane Marquez, spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, as Roxanne.

Sheriff Lee Baca said he has grown frustrated with the process, which has been complicated by concerns from residents in the nearby community that the jail -- intended to house 1,000 female inmates -- will bring more crime and traffic congestion to their neighborhood.

"We're heading into the second year of funding and we haven't thrown a shovel into the ground," Baca said. "I just don't get it. . . . Quite frankly, it's taken way too long."

Plans to renovate Sybil Brand have been delayed because the building fails to meet a number of state standards, said Jan Takata of the county's executive office, which is overseeing the project.

Built in 1963, the jail once housed more than 2,000 women. It was closed in 1997 amid concerns over its dilapidated condition. Since the jail closed, it has been used as a setting for television programs and movies, including "CSI," "Desperate Housewives" and "Reno 911."

Cosmetic issues at the jail are obvious: Paint peels from the walls, ceramic tiles and ceiling panels have popped off, water collects beneath the leaking roof. The plumbing, electrical and ventilation systems will need to be replaced. The jail's cells are too small to meet current state regulations, and its backup power generators must be replaced.

The county has hired a consulting firm to study the environmental impact of reopening the jail, including how the jail could affect life in the nearby City Terrace neighborhood. Meetings with residents will be scheduled in the coming months.

Takata said the jail could be ready to open by the spring of 2011.

Reopening Sybil Brand is an important step in Baca's plan to expand and improve conditions in the nation's largest jail system. The sheriff plans to transfer the roughly 2,000 female inmates now held at the high-security Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, moving 1,000 of them to Sybil Brand and the rest to a new women's jail to be built in Castaic. He would then use the Lynwood jail to house high-security male inmates.

Since 2000, 15 people have been slain in Los Angeles County jails, including several low-risk inmates killed by gang members or other dangerous convicts. The Sheriff's Department has also granted early release to more than 200,000 inmates because it did not have the space to keep them behind bars. "I need this jail to be built as soon as possible," Baca said.

But many City Terrace and East Los Angeles residents don't want the jail reopened.

"The Eastside always seems to get dumped on," said resident Nadine Diaz. "The Eastside is considered a low-income community [that] won't make a stink. If they were going to put a jail on the Westside, I'm sure attorneys would get involved and the homeowners would be up in arms and say, 'No. We're not going to stand for it.' "

County officials have been sensitive to community concerns, said Roxanne Marquez, spokeswoman for Supervisor Gloria Molina. The county intends to open a sheriff's substation in City Terrace to make it easier for residents to report suspicious or criminal activity. It also plans to add landscaping and synchronize traffic lights to ease congestion, Marquez said. Additionally, the Sheriff's Department intends to process and discharge inmates at the Inmate Reception Center near downtown Los Angeles, so women released from jail won't end up on the streets of City Terrace and East Los Angeles.

It simply did not make sense to build a new facility while Sybil Brand sits vacant, Baca said. By using the existing facility, the department will save about $300 million in construction costs, he said.

"It was of critical importance when it was closed, which in my opinion it shouldn't have been," Baca said. "It's of critical importance today."

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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