This week, the L.A. County Board has unanimously voted to revisit a $2 billion construction decision after failing to notify the public of their initial vote. The unannounced (and legally dubious) vote was held on August 11, where the board approved a long-discussed plan to replace L.A. County’s Men’s Central Jail with a $2 billion tower that is intended to be a “treatment-based jail.” This decision comes after public outcry and much scrutiny.
Yet, the issue, which has been studied and discussed for years, is what to do with these individuals with mental health and addiction issues. The proposed facility would offer 3,700 beds for the mentally ill inmates and those suffering from substance abuse issues, and 1,000 beds for “mentally fragile” or “high security” people in custody. As it stands, 1 in 5 inmates at central jail suffer from mental illness (enough to fill County USC Medical Center six times over, according to LA Daily News). Many say these “hardened criminals” do not deserve anything beyond the current level of care. Though, others counter that offering treatment will cease the vicious cycle of recidivism that occurs when the mentally ill are arrested, released, and re-arrested.
Critics say this is a wayward solution that still keeps status quo, simply moving the problem to a newer and more costly facility. At $2 billion, this would be the most expensive construction project in L.A. county history (according to the single dissenting voter, board member Zev Yaroslavsky.) With its hurried approval, it does little to address infrastructure and the notorious mishandling of current inmates suffering with mental illness. There are actual reports of the mentally ill being forced to fight each other gladiator style for the amusement of L.A. County Sheriffs.
A Mental Health Epidemic
Just ask Phillip Cho, a non-violent, paranoid schizophrenic, who tells of his incarceration in Twin Towers, where he ultimately was put on floor 7, the highly dreaded and much feared suicide watch floor. Here, in a cold cell, with only a loose-fitting, dress-like garment, which ultimately served as his pillow, his schizophrenia only worsened. Isolated in a soundproof cell, Cho was given medicine for his condition, but no therapy. Without real treatment Cho was rearrested merely 3 weeks after being released. This is symptomatic of a larger problem with the revolving door treatment of Los Angeles’ mentally ill.
Aside from the treatment of the inmates, the issue people are finding most problematic is whether or not this new facility would revamp the way these inmates are treated or simply provide expensive new housing. One of the biggest questions facing Angelinos: Where will the money come from? From tax dollars of, course. Yet, many cities are finding much success with new housing and treatment options that cost far less.
Perhaps, it is of interest to look into Miami-Dade County, which has the nation’s highest percentage of mentally ill people. Here, a handful of specialists in mental illness and addiction have been hired and a new facility will open to offer court services, employment training, short-term residential treatment, and a day activity program. Particularly of interest: this facility costs only $22 million (verses the proposed $2 billion) and is estimated to save at least $2 million annually as it starts to curb related arrests. And that’s just the beginning.
Where do you find yourself on this issue? It is evident and imperative that L.A. County reevaluate and redesign their treatment of the mentally ill, but do taxpayers need to pony up $2 Billion dollars to achieve this? Is there a good solution? An ethical and humane solution?
August 21, 2015 / Ryan Serey