Why So Little Progress in Closing LA County’s Aging Prison?

About two years ago, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to develop a plan to close the dilapidated Men’s Central Jail as it looked for alternatives to incarceration for the thousands of people moving in and out of the sprawling prison system of the United States. filter province.

Officials followed suit in March last year with a report outlining how the prison could be closed within two years, including plans to reduce the prison population and set aside money to ramp up community-based mental health and substance abuse programs.

Since then, however, little has been done to continue.

The slow pace has sparked protests from activists and others advocating for people in prison, highlighting the challenges associated with such a massive undertaking.

“What seems to have happened is that there was in fact a desire to take a political stance, but without giving it some serious thought and freeing up the resources to actually address the underlying issues,” he said. says Barry Litt, a civil rights attorney who helped secure mass settlements over lockup conditions in LA County and elsewhere. “You get what we have here, which is: we want to get out of the county jail, but you don’t get much exercise to do it.”

Built 59 years ago, the prison is the largest of seven facilities in LA County’s sprawling and overcrowded prison system. Every day there are more than 4,000 inmates held in cramped cells along narrow corridors in downtown LA

In a statement Wednesday, LA County officials said the jail is unsafe and closing it is a “top priority.”

“Work is underway to secure and systematically shut down MCJ by implementing viable alternatives to incarceration and expanding community-based services. …Despite the extensive efforts underway, depopulating and closing MCJ is not a short-term undertaking,” the statement said, released by a spokesman for the county and the office of Supervisor Hilda Solis.

Although last year’s report gave a two-year deadline for the prison to close, the statement said, an analysis by an outside advisory group a few months later predicted a longer timeline.

“While it is difficult to project an exact timeline, we know it is critical to work methodically to ensure that support systems are firmly in place to ensure public safety, to prevent the homelessness crisis worsens, and to a transformative ‘Care First, Jails Last’ care system, the statement said.

Supervisor Holly Mitchell said the county isn’t ready to shut down the prison, but she has insisted on using state grants set aside to build prisons to fund diversion programs instead.

“We don’t want to build prisons, but we want to use it to serve the same population,” she said.

She added: “The point is how quickly we and the community can be ready to build out the services we need at the end of our ‘Care First, Jails Last’
initiative.”

Sheriff Alex Villanueva has criticized the plan to close the prison without a replacement.

“We have murders, we have people running in the street, everyone has a gun, every mobster tries to shoot other mobsters and the occasional innocent victim, and those people will end up going to jail,” he said. last fall. “And there’s no place to put them when you take down the Men’s Central Jail.”

There has been talk of closing the outdated and overcrowded facility for a decade and at one point elected leaders came up with a serious plan to build a replacement. Those plans were scrapped in 2019 amid growing discomfort over whether they were paying enough attention to mental health.

When the pandemic began, provincial officials sought to reduce the prison population, driven by the risk of large-scale outbreaks of the disease in tight quarters.

Sharon Dolovich, a UCLA law professor who heads the school’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project, said the national prison population has fallen by a quarter during the pandemic.

“What it showed you was that if you stop arresting people for petty crimes, if you release people who are serving stupid prison sentences for minor offenses” and commit to release them while they await trial, she said,” turns out you put a lot of downward pressure on the prison population without doing a lot of work.”

About 100 activists representing a coalition of law-reform organizations gathered outside the offices of the Board of Trustees on Wednesday morning, demanding that the prison be closed by March next year. They also called on the board to fund a robust trial diversion program for those unable to afford bail.

Thousands of people are locked up “because they don’t have the financial means to buy their freedom,” Dolores Canales of the Bail Project told the crowd. “Freedom should be free.”

Many in the group wore T-shirts that read “Can’t care about cages” and “Can’t get well in a cell.” They held up signs with old quotes from regulators about the urgency of closing the facility.

“It’s been a year since the supervisors saw the most comprehensive plan we’ve ever had to close the Men’s Central Jail,” said Mark Anthony Clayton-Johnson, executive director of Dignity and Power Now, which advocates for incarcerated people and their families. “And today we still don’t have a timeline.”

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