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Activists Rally For No More Jails, But County Decides To Build Bigger One

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By Charles Davis

Even though there was a downtown L.A. rally today on the 50th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion, where protesters called for L.A. County to stop building more jails, their cries seemed to fall on deaf ears. County officials went ahead and voted to build a new and bigger "jail treatment facility."

A couple hours after the protest and press conference, which was organized by L.A. No More Jails Coalition and other groups, ended, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 to build a new 3,885-bed men's detention center, or "jail treatment facility," in downtown L.A. It would replace the Men's Central Jail and the 1,604-bed jail for women in Lancaster, CBS 2 reports

No county in the U.S. imprisons as many people as L.A. Around 20,000 people are in L.A. County Jails at any given time, with 1 in 5 officially designated as "mentally ill." The "dungeon-like" conditions at Men's Central Jail are so bad, that many of the 4,000 men kept there are let out of its overcrowded cells for an average of just 25 minutes a day, according to the L.A. Times. It drives many of those mentally-ill inmates "closer to the edge of suicide," the Times writes.

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That's led the federal government to intervene, with U.S. prosecutors insisting on reforms and an oversight regime aimed at making jails less conducive to self-imposed capital punishment. Even Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald concedes the jail itself "is a risk factor," and the two dozen activists who gathered this morning outside a meeting of the Board of Supervisors would certainly agree—they just think that instead of replacing Men's Central Jail with a state-of-the-art facility, it should be razed to the ground and replaced with anything but another detention facility.

Indeed, the greatest risk posed to inmates is not the building they are housed in, activists argued, but the people keeping them there. L.A. County Sheriff's deputies have repeatedly been charged with abusing prisoners and even those who visit them.

"Building jails is endorsing the violence that black and brown people are experiencing by the sheriff's department inside those jails," said Mark Anthony Johnson, director of Health and Wellness for Dignity and Power Now, at the rally today. "We're here to say this jail construction plan needs to stop, indefinitely."

The plan has already been stopped before, temporarily. Back in June, the Board of Supervisors voted to suspend a proposal that it had approved the year before to replace the half-century old Men's Central Jail with a new, $2 billion facility, choosing to wait to hear back from an independent consultant on how big that facility actually needs to be. That consultant, Health Management Associates, reported back earlier this month, calling for a new jail to hold about 5,000 people—1,100 more than requested by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

Diana Zuniga, an organizer with Californians United for a Responsible Budget, said that report, drafted by a company which provides health care services for jails and prisons, ignored more humane and cost-effective alternatives to incarceration. "We need community solutions. We need mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment. Our communities are suffering in Los Angeles right now," she said. "Instead of building jails we should be building housing."

Housing is at least part of the plan. Earlier this month, L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey presented a proposal to the Board of Supervisors to ramp up investment in both mental health treatment and permanent supportive housing for the mentally ill who are now on the streets of L.A.—and who, with their conditions untreated, often end up housed in a cell. "The jail environment is not conducive to the treatment of mental illness," said the report from Lacey's office. For low-level offenders in particular, "continued incarceration may not serve the interests of justice."

Lacey's proposals have helped form the basis of a plan put forward by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl to create an Office of Diversion in charge of directing $100 million in resources to mental health programs. Where activists differ with Lacey is with her suggestion that, "Mental health diversion is not a jail reduction plan."

"We want education, not incarceration," protesters chanted on Tuesday. "More jobs, less jails." They urged policymakers to reject the assumption, contained in the report from Health Management Associates, that the jail population will grow over the next decade—an assumption they say will only encourage the cells of a new, bigger jail to be filled with more black and brown bodies.

"My family has been in Men's Central Jail, so I know how ridiculous it is," said Zuniga. "My family has suffered trauma and violence at the hands of the sheriff's department in the Los Angeles County jails," she continued, so she knows that inmates currently there need to be put somewhere else, but maintains the answer is not another, more modern dungeon. "If pre-trial release was implemented fully, if split sentencing was implemented full, there would be no need to replace Men's Central Jail."

Charles Davis is a writer whose work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, The New Republic and Salon. Follow him on Twitter and read more from him on his website.