$1.4-billion renovation proposed for two L.A. County jails

Pitchess Detention CenterThe Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic
is one of the two jails involved in the proposal. (Al Seib / Los Angeles
Times)

 

By Jason Song, Los
Angeles TimesNovember 21,
2011

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.”

jason.song@latimes.com

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