By Elizabeth Marcellino
LOS ANGELES—Los Angeles County's plan to retrofit an immigration detention center in Lancaster as a women's jail, long opposed by criminal justice advocates, seems likely to be abandoned in its current form based on Tuesday's lack of support from the Board of Supervisors.
A vote to approve a $215 million budget for Mira Loma Detention Center and award a design-build construction contract to San Fernando Valley-based Bernards Bros. Inc. was postponed at the request of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. The matter is set to come back before the board in three weeks, but Kuehl said she would not vote to build on the site -- which is roughly 70 miles north of downtown Los Angeles -- and Supervisor Hilda Solis said changes would need to be made to the plan before she would support it.
Funding for the project requires four votes from the five-member Board of Supervisors.
"The location of the proposed women's jail at Mira Loma poses significant, and in my opinion, insurmountable obstacles to our goal of creating a women's jail that is the centerpiece of a gender-responsive corrections system," Kuehl said Monday. "Mira Loma is too far away from the home communities of the women who would be housed there, and too far away from family members who would need to visit."
Solis said she is committed to finding strategies that encourage family reunification and lower recidivism rates, but stopped short of saying she would never support a plan to build in Lancaster.
"L.A. County should be on the forefront of diversion and rehabilitation, rather than punishment than incarceration," Solis said.
The board approved the project in concept in 2015, though Solis abstained from the vote and both she and Kuehl called then for strategies to overcome the challenges posed by the facility's location.
The JusticeLA Coalition declared victory Tuesday as members stood outside the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in orange T-shirts with the slogan "can't get well in a cell" emblazoned on the back.
"We can finally claim this victory after seven years," Eunisses Hernandez of JusticeLA said, drawing cheers.
Coalition speakers urged the board to invest in community resources that could reduce the numbers of arrests and jail time by treating mental illness, providing jobs and educating young people.
Supervisor Janice Hahn, who chairs the board, said the decision to delay a vote and rethink the jail plan was made by the board as a whole.
"It was a collective will to put the brakes on, to take a step back and to pause," Hahn said. "There is a new sheriff in town who also has some ideas ... he also would like to weigh in."
Sheriff Alex Villanueva has talked about reducing the jail population and finding alternatives to incarceration and many advocates of reform see him as a potential ally. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"We have a sheriff who does not want to build and that is unprecedented," Mark-Anthony Johnson of Dignity & Power Now told the board, after thanking them for "challenging the conventional wisdom that this was just a done deal."
But it's not clear whether the board and the sheriff are willing to go as far as criminal justice advocates would like.
For activists, it isn't simply a question of where the jail is built.
"The ask is not for a better women's jail, it's for meaningful and real alternatives to incarceration," said community activist Kristina Lear. "I'm not asking for a relocation, I'm asking for a halt to it."
Esther Lim of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said the county didn't do enough front-end analysis on who needs to be jailed versus who needs diversion and treatment, pointing out that one of the most detailed studies behind the jails plan was provided by a construction management firm.
It's time to "reexamine what criminal justice looks like here in Los Angeles," Lim told City News Service.
Before the board, Lim pointed out that Mira Loma is not the only jail slated for construction.
"CCTF is a mistake that will cost us billions of dollars," Lim said.
A $2.2 billion Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility is planned to replace the crowded, decrepit Men's Central Jail and provide better treatment and more humane conditions for the roughly one-third of inmates who have mental health issues.
The Department of Public Works had recommended increasing the CCTF budget by roughly $30 million and awarding a contract to McCarthy Building Companies Inc. A vote on that item was also postponed for three weeks at the department's request.
"If you're going to take Mira Loma off the table, we need to look at the entire jail plan," Supervisor Kathryn Barger told her colleagues.
Lancaster is in the district she represents, but Barger said she had no issue with choosing another location for a women's jail in downtown Los Angeles or elsewhere.
As for the existing Lancaster detention center, "I'd love to flatten it and put in affordable housing tomorrow," Barger said.
But she also warned the board that $100 million in state funding for the project was at stake.
The county has also spent roughly $8 million on planning for the Mira Loma project, according to a DPW spokesman.
While everyone on the board agreed with the need to rethink the plan, at least with regard to Mira Loma, no one offered a specific alternative.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas reminded his colleagues that one of the reasons for updating the county jail system is to comply with Department of Justice concerns about the treatment of suicidal and mentally ill inmates.
"This discussion is at least 15 years old. Four governors later, 10 members of the board of supervisors later ... we have yet to land," Ridley- Thomas said. "What then are we prepared to construct?"
Even Kuehl, who was willing to take the strongest stance against Mira Loma, maintained her support for the men's jail project, saying it would improve the treatment and rehabilitation of mentally ill jail inmates.
But Lim and other advocates argue that most of those inmates are behind bars for non-violent offenses and could be diverted into community-based programs where they would have a better chance of leading productive lives.
Johnson estimated that the county could divert about 10,000 individuals annually into community programs rather than jailing them and said the vast majority of the county's diversion programs had not yet been implemented.
To date, the county has diverted roughly 2,500 offenders through its Office of Diversion and Reentry.
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