The Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic is one of the two jails involved… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Los Angeles County supervisors could soon be asked to approve the county's most expensive building project ever, a $1.4-billion reconstruction and renovation of two jails, one of which has figured in allegations of inmate abuse.
The officials will also have to gauge whether the potential benefits outweigh the hefty price tag, given the tough economy. Some supervisors wonder whether they may be diverting money from other vital services when cheaper jail alternatives could be considered.
Law enforcement officials agree that the aging Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles needs an upgrade because its antiquated layout makes it difficult for guards to watch all inmates.
County Chief Executive William T Fujioka and Sheriff Lee Baca endorsed a plan to replace Men's Central Jail and add space to the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic during a meeting last month. They said the moves would make the nation's largest jail system safer and cheaper to operate by modernizing the design. Building costs would be historically low because of the economic downturn, they added.
"It's bold. It's large. But there's no better timing than now," Baca said.
But some supervisors are balking at the price tag, saying it could take money away from other important programs for up to 30 years, the time needed to pay off the loans it would need to pay for the project.
It would "consign the other vital services to second class status for two generations," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who believes the supervisors should consider other, less costly options.
Yaroslavsky said such an expensive project should be put to a public vote.
"You want $1.4 billion? Put it on the ballot," he said. "Nobody wants to do that; they know what the taxpayer would do."
Supervisors are scheduled to discuss the plan at a meeting later this month, where they are expected to weigh potentially cheaper alternatives, including replacing only parts of the jails or putting more less-violent prisoners on home detention.
The plan would add only about 400 beds to the currently overcrowded 23,600-bed jail system. But it would increase efficiency by modernizing the design in Men's Central, supporters say. Instead of featuring long rows of cells, the jails would be rebuilt to put more beds in smaller, circular groups.
Currently, dangerous or unstable inmates are sometimes housed alone in 10-bed cells. The new facilities could include almost 4,000 high-security beds for men in smaller cells, which would make it easier to isolate prisoners.
The current jail layout "creates significant safety problems," Fujioka said. "It's terribly inefficient with respect to energy and operation."
The proposed new facility would be easier to maintain and cheaper to supervise, leading to overall savings, he said.
Even staunch jail critics concede that a new facility might be needed, especially since parts of Men's Central Jail were built in the 1960s.
"We believe there are serious problems with having people in Men's Central Jail and are skeptical about needs for a plan this big, but it merits further study," said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Eliasberg said he believed a feasibility study could be conducted quickly.
Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has been critical of Baca and the Sheriff's Department over allegations of inmate abuse in the jails, said she's not sure if the $1.4-billion plan is necessary but wants to tie any new construction plans to jail management reforms.
"I'm sort of using this as a way to bring accountability to the department," said Molina, who has noted several times that supervisors can influence Baca, an independently elected official, only by constraining the Sheriff's Department budget, its legal costs or construction projects.
"The Sheriff's Department is a very elusive agency," Molina said.
The FBI is investigating the allegations of inmate abuse and other deputy misconduct.
In particular, Molina said she wanted to explore whether deputies could wear individual cameras inside jails, something the deputies union has opposed, and whether often-delayed use-of-force investigations could be done within 30 days.
Other supervisors have wondered whether the county should wait until the effects of the state's "realignment" plan are clear. Beginning in October, some parolees and prisoners convicted of nonviolent and nonsexual crimes and once under state care are being released to counties, leading to an increase in the number of inmates in local facilities.
Los Angeles County officials expected an additional 600 prisoners as a result of the plan but reported that they received 900, leading to fears that the jail system would become even more overcrowded.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Yaroslavsky said.
Baca has said he supports the $1.4-billion renovation plan, but he is willing to explore other options, especially since supervisors are concerned at the cost, according to Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore.
"Everything needs to be fleshed out," Whitmore said. "He understands the realities like everyone else."