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L.A. County supervisor outlines a new jail proposal

Zev Yaroslavsky advocates tearing down part of the Men's Central Jail and building a facility to house inmates who are mentally ill or addicted to drugs.

May 21, 2013|By Jason Song, Times Staff Writer
  • “The way we handle mental health and substance abuse cases is not good,” says L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Above, deputies in a secure section of the Men's Central Jail.
“The way we handle mental health and substance abuse cases is not… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky wants the board to consider tearing down part of the troubled Men's Central Jail and building a facility to house mentally ill and drug addicted inmates, which he says would offer all prisoners a better chance of rehabilitation while potentially saving the county millions of dollars.

Supervisors have been struggling over what to do with their aging and overcrowded jails for more than a year. Sheriff Lee Baca, who oversees the nation's largest jail system, initially called for spending nearly $1.4 billion to replace or renovate the Men's Central Jail and the adjacent Twin Towers, but the price tag was more than supervisors would accept.

Several supervisors recently expressed frustration over what they saw as a lack of progress in finding solutions and also complained that they were not getting timely and accurate information from county employees, including county Chief Executive William T Fujioka.

In addition to the high cost, Yaroslavsky opposed the earlier plans, saying they did not do enough to help rehabilitate prisoners.

As many as 70% of all inmates in the county's roughly 23,600-bed jail system are addicted to drugs or suffer from mental illness, according to Sheriff's Department estimates.

"The way we handle mental health and substance abuse cases is not good," Yaroslavsky said Monday. "It's not sustainable, and it doesn't produce good results. My view is, if we're going to spend any serious money on the jail, it should be in [those] areas."

Yaroslavsky said county taxpayers could save money in the long run if jailers place special-needs prisoners in a central location and house them in cells designed for their conditions.

Currently, many inmates who need to be isolated from others, including those with mental illnesses or physical disabilities or on dialysis, take up extra room because they must be placed alone in cells meant for two prisoners.

The project "could result in better and more humane outcomes for these prisoners as well as a more cost-effective solution to the problem of housing the general jail population," Yaroslavsky wrote in a proposal to fellow board members.

It's unclear how much the project would cost, but Yaroslavsky proposed asking a consulting group that is already working on jail plans to figure it out and also look at the feasibility of adding a new section to Men's Central.

The county might be able to get state grants to defray construction costs and Medi-Cal funding for some inmate treatment.

Legal advocacy groups that have opposed building jail facilities said that Yaroslavsky's plan was better than earlier proposals, but they hope supervisors will consider spending money on other alternatives to traditional jails.

Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who specializes in jails, noted in a letter to supervisors that "A much more effective and less costly option would be to divert a significant number of prisoners with serious mental illness to non-correctional settings" such as community-based rehabilitation centers.

Years ago, Kupers inspected Men's Central as an expert witness for the American Civil Liberties Union and wrote a 2009 report based on that visit that found "grossly inadequate mental health services."

Baca supports Yaroslavsky's proposal and "appreciates the innovation of the supervisor," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.

Peter Eliasberg, inmate-advocate and legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said he hoped Yaroslavsky's suggestion is a sign that the board is ready to move forward with jail reform.

"This is the time when someone can say, 'I don't have to worry about the politics, and I can just do the right thing,' " he said.

jason.song@latimes.com

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