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Criminal Justice

‘Dickensian’ Conditions At LA County Jail Amid Shortage Of Psychiatric Staff

"Los Angeles County Sheriff -- Men's Central Jail" is painted in yellow letters on a black wall at the L.A. County jail complex downtown.
Men's Central Jail in downtown L.A.
(Andrew Cullen for LAist)
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The L.A. County Jail system is facing a stark shortage of psychiatric staffers amid what experts and officials say is an exploding population of incarcerated people living with a mental illness.

4 In 10 Of Mental Health Positions Are Vacant

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Sybil Brand Commission, which is tasked with performing jail inspections, Correctional Health Services Director Dr. Timothy Belavich said the jail was facing a roughly 40% vacancy in mental health positions.

“Not everyone wants to come work in the jail, and not everyone is ready for that type of work,” Belavich told Brand commissioners, noting that the L.A. County Department of Mental Health is also struggling to fill open positions.

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On Thursday, the jail mental health population stood at about 5,700 people, or roughly 40% of the overall number of people incarcerated in L.A. County jail.

Filthy Jail Cells

Loyola Law School Professor Eric Miller has inspected Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers facility in downtown L.A. as part of his other job as a Sybil Brand commissioner. He described some of the conditions he observed as “something out of Charles Dickens,” with several men naked in “filthy” cells.

The conditions don’t make them better, it’s clear that people are just getting worse when they're held under those circumstances.
— Eric Miller, Sybil Brand commissioner

Miller described the jail conditions as unconstitutional and a violation of human rights.

“It’s truly disgusting the sorts of conditions that we subject people with serious mental illness to,” Miller said. “And the conditions don’t make them better, it’s clear that people are just getting worse when they're held under those circumstances,” he told LAist.

During the Brand Commission meeting, Belavich offered that roughly 10% of the vacancies are due to new positions that were recently added.

Earlier this year, a court-appointed monitor who keeps watch over conditions for incarcerated people living with a mental illness says L.A. County is seriously behind on several requirements laid out by a federal judge including provisions for out-of-cell time, inpatient mental health beds and group therapy.

What Our Investigation Found

In an LAist investigation from earlier this year, current and former medical staff members described a jail working environment that is dysfunctional, abusive and detrimental to providing health care.

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At a previous meeting of the Brand Commission in September, Belavich presented a dire situation for people living with a serious mental illness inside L.A. County jail.

“The acuity and the sheer number [of people with a mental illness] have made it such that it’s impossible to provide adequate treatment in this facility or in the jail system,” Belavich told commissioners.

Local activists continue to push L.A. County leaders to stick to a plan —submitted more than a year ago — to close Men’s Central Jail.

The 145-page proposal was prepared by a workgroup led by the County Office of Diversion and Reentry and the Sheriff’s Department, in partnership with community groups and service providers. It calls for, in part, diverting some 4,500 people with mental health issues out of jail.

Emily Elena Dugdale contributed reporting for this story. 

What questions do you have about mental health in SoCal?
One of my goals on the mental health beat is to make the seemingly intractable mental health care system more navigable.