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LA County Supervisors to Vote on Canceling Jail Contract

Black Lives Matter and other advocates have pushed county officials to abandon the $2.2 billion project with McCarthy Builders.

Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives MatterPhoto by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for 2017 ESSENCE Festival.

Los Angeles County officials are poised to cancel the construction of a new 3,885-bed facility for pretrial detainees with mental health and substance use issues. 

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors posted a notice Wednesday night, announcing that it will vote at its Aug. 13 meeting on a motion to cancel its contract with McCarthy Building Companies Inc. for the new facility.

Opponents say the $2.2 billion project amounts to building another jail, and have charged that McCarthy is known for constructing unsafe psychiatric correctional facilities. They argue that the county should come up with a different plan to help its most vulnerable. 

Patrisse Cullors, a Black Lives Matter co-founder and chairperson of the Reform LA Jails Coalition who has led the fight against the jail, told The Appeal in an email, “We are one step closer to that closure and to building a holistic model for mental health care in Los Angeles County.” 

The motion, introduced by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl, cites ongoing studies on the jail mental health population and the impact of diversion programs as evidence that the project should not proceed. The incomplete studies, the motion states, “clearly demonstrate imprudence of proceeding forward with the design and construction of the original scope of the [Mental Health Treatment Center] when it is clear that, at the very least, the design will need to substantially change once all of the facts are known.”

In March, the board approved McCarthy’s plan to replace the crumbling 5,276-bed Men’s Central Jail, run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, with a  “Mental Health Treatment Center.” The facility will provide both treatment and therapy for people caught in the criminal legal system. As many as 1 in 5 people incarcerated in America’s jails experience mental illness; in Los Angeles County, that figure is nearly 1 in 3

But critics note that the facility will be overseen by the corrections board, not mental health regulators, and will most likely not do enough to help those in need of care. “A jail is a jail is a jail,” said Solis after she voted against the project. “It is not enough to change the name of the facility.” Solis argued that the county should send people to treatment centers in their communities instead of locking them up.

McCarthy, a $3.7 billion company, has built projects across the United States, including a maximum security jail in Maricopa County, Arizona, and a state-run prison medical facility in Stockton, California. That prison—California Healthcare Facility, Stockton—incarcerates roughly 2,670 people who are either physically or mentally ill, and is the largest prison medical facility in the country. In April, it received failing grades from the state’s chief inspector, who noted that doctors “repeatedly failed to make sound assessments and accurate diagnoses.” That same month, a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak killed one man and left others sick. An investigation by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that deadly bacteria causing the disease were in the water system. 

“Our team is ready to listen to the County of Los Angeles leadership regarding their direction on the best vision for the community moving forward,” Mike Myers, president of McCarthy’s Southern California region, wrote in an email to The Appeal.

To cancel the contract with McCarthy, at least three of the five supervisors must vote in favor of the motion on Tuesday. Cullors explained that there’s no guarantee on how the board will vote, but the motion is a positive step forward to scrapping the jail. “The people did this and we will continue to fight the beautiful fight that centers our loved ones with mental illness,” she said.