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Grand jury decries unused lockup

Chatsworth cells could ease jail crowding, the L.A. County panel says. Officials say the facility isn't for long-term use.

September 28, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

They built Los Angeles' most modern jail and then locked the place shut and threw away the key.

That is the assertion of a Los Angeles County civil grand jury, which is demanding to know why a lockup in Chatsworth sits unoccupied as other county jails are releasing prisoners early because of overcrowding.

"State of the art" cells engineered to accommodate 350 prisoners sit unused beneath the Chatsworth Courthouse, jurors said.

"Who is responsible for the multimillion-dollar boondoggle, also known as the Chatsworth Jail?" panel members asked in their final 2006-2007 report.

"Every modern technological advance was utilized and no expense was spared to ensure the security and well-being of each prisoner," jurors concluded.

Except there are no inmates.

"The only fault this Civil Grand Jury found is that the Chatsworth Jail sits in an empty, pristine and unused condition, despite the fact that the Board of Supervisors is well aware of the appalling conditions at both Twin Towers and Men's Central Jail," the jury report said.

The jury's blast comes amid continuing controversy over the early release of celebrities Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie from jail sentences.

Hilton was sent home four days after beginning a 45-day sentence for violating probation on alcohol-related reckless driving charges. An irate Superior Court judge later ordered her returned to jail, where she served 23 days before being released in late June.

In late August, Richie served 82 minutes of a four-day jail term for driving the wrong way on a freeway under the influence of drugs.

Sheriff's Department officials defended both celebrities' early release, explaining that sentences are frequently cut radically under guidelines used for dealing with chronic overcrowding in the county jails.

Over the last five years, more than 200,000 inmates have been released early because of crowding.

The $98-million Chatsworth Courthouse opened in 2002 at the corner of Winnetka Avenue and Plummer Street. The 300,000-square-foot granite structure began operation with 10 courtrooms, with space for eight more.

Its high-tech confinement cells are in the basement. Each is equipped with stainless-steel toilets and sinks, built-in bench seating and computerized pay telephones. Security includes double-doored entryways that are under constant video surveillance. Additional holding cell space is upstairs, nearer to courtrooms.

The Chatsworth Courthouse had amassed a bumpy history even before it was built. Nearby homeowners angrily fought its construction, charging that it would disrupt families' lives and harm property values by attracting criminals and automobile traffic to their adjacent residential area.

There was controversy when the previous owner of the 10-acre site, a developer who donated heavily to county supervisors' political campaigns, was hired to build the 292,000-square-foot courthouse. The contemporary, four-level project was initially budgeted at $51.5 million before costs ballooned.

Once the courthouse was finished, Superior Court officials delayed opening it because they lacked the money to staff it. Then a year after its opening, the courthouse stopped handling criminal cases and its basement lockup was closed. Budget problems and neighborhood unrest were credited with turning it into a civil court.

Court officials have reacted with surprise to the panel's findings.

Court spokesman Allan Parachini said the Chatsworth cells were never intended to house prisoners for long periods.

"If it were in operation it would be a courthouse lockup, not a jail. Lockups are staffed and intended to be used during court hours, not overnight," Parachini said. "The court would not be very interested in 24-hour residential habitation of courthouses. There are security issues with that."

Parachini said there is a lack of a "security perimeter" around the Chatsworth courthouse.

"Nothing would prevent people who got out from running," he said. "The prospect of putting a barbed wire fence around a courthouse is antithetical to open access to the courts."

The Sheriff's Department provides security for the Chatsworth Courthouse and also operates the county jail system. Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the grand jury misidentified the unused cells in Chatsworth as jail cells.

"There are no showers. There are no facilities there," Whitmore said, referring to kitchens, laundries and recreation areas that normal jails have. "It's a lockup. None of the courts can hold prisoners for more than 12 hours unless it's an emergency. It's a holding cell until the prisoner gets back to permanent housing."

Sheriff's officials say sack lunches are sent with prisoners who are bused to various courthouses each day and then locked in the holding cells until their cases are called.

It is unclear what it would cost to modify the Chatsworth site with kitchen, laundry or other facilities needed by a full jail.

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