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UPDATE: LA County supervisors vote to research renovating jail to treat mental health, substance abuse

An immate uses a mirror to look outside his cell at the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, 19 May 2004.
An immate uses a mirror to look outside his cell at the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, 19 May 2004.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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UPDATE 12:58 p.m. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to research turning a wing of Men's Central Jail into a mental health and substance abuse treatment facility.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who introduced the motion, called the idea to simply tear down the current jail and replace it with a new one "absurd."

"I'm not interested in spending a billion dollars on another jail," Yaroslavsky said. "I am open as a policymaker and as a taxpayer to doing something that costs money if it stands a chance of actually producing results."

Assistant Sheriff Teri McDonald, who's in charge of the county's jails, told the Board she was open to the idea.

"We really are challenged with our physical plant," McDonald said, pointing out that Twin Towers jail currently has 2,700 men with mental health needs who are nonetheless housed in the general population.

She pledged to work with Vanir, a construction consulting firm that's currently working on a report about the needs of L.A. County's jails, as well as members of community groups who want to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates.

Vanir's report is due to the county July 16. 

PREVIOUSLY: L.A. County's Men's Central Jail doesn't have a lot of fans in county government these days.

The lockup, widely considered decaying and outdated by today's (and yesterday's) jail construction standards, is also the site of many of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department's well-publicized scandals.

That just about everyone familiar with the jail wants to get rid of it is not surprising. As of yet, there's no consensus on how the real estate should be repurposed to best serve the county's needs.

Recently, Sheriff Lee Baca proposed the county tear down MCJ and replace it with a new, state-of-the-art high-security jail, with a medical facility and classrooms for his education-based incarceration program.

On Tuesday, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors will consider a new idea for the jail.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is expected to introduce a motion to consider renovating a part of it into a mental health facility and substance abuse treatment center for jail inmates. If it passes, the motion would instruct Vanir Construction, a firm currently contracted to do an assessment of the county's jail needs, to thoroughly research the idea.

Yaroslavsky's proposal, according to the motion, stems from a serious deficit in current jail facilities designed to treat mentally ill offenders, those with substance abuse issues and those suffering from medical problems that require segregation.

"While these inmates are served by dedicated mental health and substance abuse professionals," the motion reads, "even the most modern jail configurations have intrinsic constraints that are incompatible with a therapeutic environment."

A 2008 report by the ACLU of Southern California identified "serious deficiencies" in the capability of jails to treat those with mental health issues. Among them, the constant need to transfer mentally ill inmates out of treatment space into general population because of overcrowding.

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the organization, said he's glad to see a new focus on the mentally ill population, but there are potential issues with any construction plan.

"Even when you really try to build a more humane jail, you really end up missing the fact that there are a lot of ways that are better for handling people with mental illness," Eliasberg said.

He'd like the board to also research utilizing L.A. County's extensive network of community-based health care providers to treat inmates in a non-jail setting.

A letter signed by Eliasberg, as well as a host of local jail-watchers, calls on the board to include an evaluation of the county's current  in-patient substance abuse and mental health facilities before constructing anything new.