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How Sheriff Villanueva's Election May Have Doomed LA's New Women's Jail

Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 10, 2006. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
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It may not have been a coincidence that just a month after Sheriff Alex Villanueva took office, L.A. County Supervisors appeared Tuesday to abandon their longtime plans to build a new women's jail in Lancaster.

On the campaign trail, Villanueva said it made no sense to house female inmates at the Mira Loma detention facility deep in the Antelope Valley, instead of at the Lynwood jail in South Los Angeles. Mira Loma, which is currently closed, is a nearly two-hour drive from downtown L.A.

"I think that's a horrifically bad idea," he told LAist last week. "There are issues with minor children, infants, and when you start stretching them out that far away, we're creating bigger problems."

Female inmates "have to stay in the L.A. basin," said Villanueva, who once was a watch commander at the women's jail. The Lynwood facility houses about 2,100 inmates.

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The argument voiced by Villanueva has been around ever since the board gave the preliminary go-ahead for the project more than four years ago. Activists lobbied intensely against it, only to see the supervisors vote to move forward with the $215 million plan, including approving the final environmental impact report last year.

Before Tuesday, many had considered the new jail to be a done deal. County staff had prepared a motion for the board to approve a contract to design and build it. But now the jail's fate is in serious doubt.

"There is a new sheriff in town," board Chair Janice Hahn said. "He should be able to weigh in on this project."

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis previously had expressed concerns about Mira Loma but had not yet moved to halt it. They could have, since the project requires the support of four of the five supervisors to be built.

"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," Kuehl said. Noting that 80 percent of incarcerated women nationally are mothers, she said the trip from South L.A. is three hours each way on public transportation.

It's easier for incarcerated women to leave a life of crime when they get regular visits from their children and other relatives, according to various studies.

The Mira Loma plan originated under former Sheriff Lee Baca, and Jim McDonnell, his successor, backed it.

No supervisor said they changed their mind about the jail as a result of Villanueva's stunning upset victory over McDonnell. But activists who have been trying to persuade the board to change course said the new sheriff no doubt had an impact.

Villanueva's election "changed the landscape," said Mark Anthony Clayton-Johnson, a leader of Justice L.A. "The sheriff pumping the brakes on the plan gave supervisors some political space."

There is broad agreement that the current women's jail in Lynwood is in desperate need of repair and that a new facility is needed. Later this month, Villanueva is scheduled to present to the supervisors his plan on how to proceed.

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"I think [the supervisors] remain curious about Villanueva and the role he will play," said Lex Steppling, director of campaigns and policy for Dignity and Power Now.

Changing attitudes about public safety also played a role in the supervisors' apparent backing away from the women's jail plan.

Indeed, the entire state has begun to rethink criminal justice policies over the past decade or so, with the passage of various laws and propositions that lowered prison sentences and provided more funding for rehabilitation.

Community activists want police and prosecutors to divert people from jails and the county to provide more money for rehabilitation programs. With the new women's jail in Lancaster apparently all but dead, it's unclear what the supervisors will do next. They plan to revisit the topic in two weeks, with some suggesting they need to find a new jail site.

The board was additionally set Tuesday to approve a contract to tear down the aging 5,000-inmate Men's Central Jail and replace it with a $2.2 billion facility focused on providing care to the growing mentally ill inmate population. That decision was also postponed until later this month.

Villanueva has expressed concerns about the plan, saying mentally ill inmates should be placed in a hospital setting.

The jail does need to be torn down, said Villanueva. "The question is, what will be built in its place?"

Whatever the board decides, it needs to think long-term, said Supervisor Kathryn Barger.

"This is going to be generations down the road that are going be impacted," she said.

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