Sheriff Seeks to Replace Men's Central Jail Cells With Classrooms

LA County Supervisors have requested more time to review the plan.

By Patrick Healy
|  Wednesday, Mar 20, 2013  |  Updated 12:05 PM PDT
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The LA County Board of Supervisors agreed to hire an independent consultant to analyze the need for new county jails, putting a nearly $1 billion proposal to replace the aging Men's Central Jail on hold for at least another 60 days. Sheriff Lee Baca envisions gutting the cells and adding classrooms in the remodel of the decade-old jail. Patrick Healy reports from Downtown LA for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on March 19, 2013.

Patrick Healy

The LA County Board of Supervisors agreed to hire an independent consultant to analyze the need for new county jails, putting a nearly $1 billion proposal to replace the aging Men's Central Jail on hold for at least another 60 days. Sheriff Lee Baca envisions gutting the cells and adding classrooms in the remodel of the decade-old jail. Patrick Healy reports from Downtown LA for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on March 19, 2013.

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The gutting of Men's Central Jail cells to be replaced with inmate classrooms is one element of a dramatic re-envisioning of the Los Angeles County jail system as proposed by Sheriff Lee Baca.

During his tenure, Baca has expanded educational opportunities for county inmates. Gutting the old central jail to make room for inmate classrooms would take the program to a new level.

Inmates who obtain their high school graduate equivalent degrees (GEDs) are more likely to find work when released into society, and less likely to re-offend, Baca is convinced.

The response to the county's inmate educational program is "like nothing I've seen in my 47 years in law enforcement," Baca told reporters Tuesday outside the County Hall of Administration.

"It's a good idea," said one man following his release from Men's Central Jail after serving a week for a drug violation. "Not everyone, but a lot of the men want to change."

"Education can help," said the former inmate, who declined to give his name.

Other aspects of his plan include building a new central jail, repurposing Lancaster's Mira Loma detention center, and transferring women inmates out of the Century Regional Detention Facility, either to Mira Loma or to the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.

The estimated cost would be about $1 billion, according to a 21-page letter sent to the County Board of Supervisors by Baca and William T. Fujioka, the county's chief executive officer.

The proposal was on the agenda for Tuesday's Board meeting, but was removed after two Supervisors brought a motion calling for additional research and analysis before the county considers approving a comprehensive jail plan.

It's expected a private consultant will have the report ready in two months, said Supervisor Michael Antonovich, co-author of the motion with Supervisor Gloria Molina.

Removing the plan from the agenda did not deter members of activist groups from speaking against jail expansion during the public comment period Tuesday.

"Put a moratorium on all jail expansion plans," said Sheila Pinkel, of the group LA No More Jails, which encourages the county to seek alternatives to incarceration, particularly for female inmates.

The Century Regional Justice Center which currently houses women in Lynwood was designed as a men's jail. Transferring women to another facility would make room for male custodies and enable the facility to be more fully utilized, Baca said.

An earlier sheriff's proposal had envisioned a "women's village" to be built at the Pitchess complex in Castaic. A recently proposed alternative location, at Mira Loma, became available at the end of a federal government lease for detaining undocumented suspects facing deportation.

That arrangement ended last November, and for now Mira Loma is empty. The facility has barrack-style housing.

Just northeast of Downtown Los Angeles, aging Men's Central Jail, with rows of cells for more than 3,000 inmates, is regarded as the nation's largest jail, and one of California's oldest, marking its 50th year.

Linear rows of cells have been supplanted in more modern jail design by so-called "modular" cellblocks, in which the cells wrap around a central jailers' station, enabling guards to see into any cell at any moment, improving safety and emergency response.

A modular style central jail would also be more efficient and less costly to operate, Baca said. As currently envisioned, with a capacity of 3,456 inmates when housed two to a cell, the replacement central jail would not provide any increase in capacity.

"We know Men's Central needs to be replaced, that's on the table," Antonovich said.

Even though the jail plan did not come up formally, Sheriff Baca appeared before the board with a follow-up report on his response to recommendations last year by the Citizen's Commission on Jail Violence.

Baca was joined by Terri McDonald, the department's new assistant sheriff in charge of the jail system. McDonald served previously as Undersecretary of California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Operation of most every county jail in the state has been complicated by the AB 109 realignment, steering the sentences for many felony convictions from prison to jail.

"The sheriff was candid" in describing the issues facing LA County's jail system, McDonald said. "I love a challenge."

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