L.A. County Jail Plan Is a $2 Billion Blunder That Embraces Incarceration, Not Treatment, for Mentally Ill
Insung "Phillip" Cho; "I want the world to know [that] most people who go into L.A.'s jails come out worse — like me."
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
It was the happiest day of Phillip Cho's life. Shortly after New Year's Day in 2005, he learned that he had acquired a fortune of $600 million — a windfall from his brother, who had won a settlement in a corporate espionage lawsuit, and who planned to give Cho access to the money through a black American Express card he was sending him in the mail.
Unable to contain his excitement, Cho drove straight to the upscale Westfield Santa Anita mall in Arcadia. Though his personal bank account was dwindling, he wasn't too worried; his brother's AmEx card would arrive soon. Until then, he could write checks that his bank would reimburse.
The mall seemed an endless opportunity to buy things he'd always wanted. He bought a Tag Heuer watch for $545, and leather shoes for $150. After that, he couldn't even decide what he wanted. So he consulted the hot, 23-year-old Russian woman accompanying him.
"Anna, what should I get next? Is there anything you need?"
"No, I have everything I need, Phillip. This is a special day. You should get what makes you happy."
Cho decided to buy a $450 Mont Blanc fountain pen.
There's only one problem with this scenario: Anna and the black AmEx card weren't real.
Phillip Cho is a paranoid schizophrenic.
Diagnosed in 1998, Cho was living at a boardinghouse in Pasadena when, on New Year's Eve heading into 2005, he started imagining Anna. In the space of a couple days, she convinced him he was a millionaire.
It wasn't long before his alternate reality came crashing down on him. After the mall, Cho went to Old Town Pasadena and tried to purchase a $2,000 case of cigars. The store clerk told Cho that he'd need to call his bank to clear the check. Cho was nonplussed; he left for a while and returned, thinking all was well. But three men in street clothes were waiting near the counter. One pulled out a badge and told Cho he was under arrest for attempted commercial burglary.
"Wait, this is a mistake!" Cho told the undercover officers.
Cho spent the night in a Pasadena holding cell, and the next morning was transferred to the reception area of Los Angeles County's Men's Central Jail near City Hall in downtown Los Angeles, where a young sheriff's deputy took his medical history. When Cho mentioned his schizophrenia, he was immediately handcuffed to a bench. He was left like that all afternoon, eventually pissing himself.
The Sheriff's Department jailers took Cho from Men's Central to Twin Towers Correctional Facility, a compound across the street that supposedly was designed to humanely house mentally ill offenders.
Cho tells L.A. Weekly that, upon arriving at the facility on Bauchet Street, deputies made him walk through a spray of Mace as they mocked, "Welcome to Twin Towers." (The Sheriff's Department says it has no complaints on file about the alleged incident. Cho was not taking his medications but is adamant that it happened.)
Inside, Cho's mental health worsened, a common outcome cited by jail critics. All too often, unstable people become even more unstable inside L.A.'s jail system. And that makes them more likely to repeat crimes or grow violent, sometimes trapping them for years in a punitive system ill-equipped to provide the treatment they need to change.
It needn't be like this. Miami, Nashville and San Francisco have shown a way out of this cycle. They "divert" nonviolent, mentally ill offenders into more humane community treatment centers, which provide housing, medication, job counseling and therapy. Their programs are better than jails at preventing crime and at keeping troubled people from re-offending.
And it costs taxpayers far less than putting the mentally ill behind bars.
Had a judge ordered Cho into a hospital or community treatment program, he might have received the psychiatric help and housing support he desperately needed.
But under L.A. County's approach, Cho would be arrested and rearrested over the course of a year, all the while falling further into madness.
Cho's plight is common in L.A., exasperating Los Angeles Superior Court justices such as Terry Smerling, who blasts the lack of mental health care facilities here. Smerling tells the Weekly he's seen the same mentally ill people so many times in his Pasadena courtroom that they've become "household names." In Smerling's experience, "A substantial portion of them do not need or benefit from jail sentences. They need treatment." His views are echoed by prominent organizations including the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
But on May 6, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors missed a rare opportunity to turn the jails around and bring real help to the roughly 3,200 mentally ill men and women who crowd county cells.
That day, county supervisors Gloria Molina, Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich voted to spend nearly $2 billion on a long-sought jail to replace notorious Men's Central, a facility that federal investigators say is plagued by suicides, abusive conditions and violence. The funds will build a two-tower compound given the ungainly name "Consolidated Correctional Treatment Facility."
The winning plan was one of five ideas, ranging in cost from $1.7 billion to $2 billion, proposed by private jail consultant Vanir Construction Management Inc. Zev Yaroslavsky, the only board member to vote against the plan (Mark Ridley-Thomas abstained), calls the high-rise jail the most expensive construction project in county history.
Despite its price tag, the plan was hurriedly approved. It gives barely a nod to the Sheriff's historic mishandling of inmates with mental illness. By embracing a 4,860-bed facility in which 3,260 beds, or 67 percent, are intended for jailing the mentally ill, the supervisors held fast to the past, ignoring — or even unaware of — the dramatic successes achieved in Miami, San Francisco and Nashville.
Peter Eliasberg, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, told the Weekly that the supervisors' $2 billion jail plan "is totally misguided. It keeps a status quo rather than fixes a lot of problems our system currently faces."
Advocates sing a different tune. One key proponent is Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, a department newcomer hired in 2013 after 25 years at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She joined Sheriff Lee Baca's team under the banner of an outside reformer but wasn't there long before a series of scandals — including charges against six deputies for attempting to disrupt an FBI investigation of the jail — led to Baca's surprise resignation in January.
Taking up Baca's push for a replacement jail, McDonald has become the department's face in promoting the issue. She joined the three supervisors, saying the new dual-tower jail will cut overcrowding, correct abusive conditions and reduce extensive litigation spawned by those problems.
In June, shortly after the Board of Supervisors chose the 4,860-bed high-rise plan, the Department of Justice slammed L.A. County jailers for failing to prevent high numbers of suicides among mentally ill inmates. Meanwhile, the FBI released evidence from its own jailhouse informant, equipped with a smuggled-in cellphone, showing that Baca's deputies had staged gladiator-style fights among inmates.
The revelations add fuel to a federal grand jury probe of inmate abuse at Men's Central Jail and Twin Towers jail, which has seen 21 deputies indicted since December. The feds also have subpoenaed Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who nonetheless has continued his campaign to replace Baca in the November election.
Critics are asking how many more lives and billions of dollars might be wasted due to the supervisors' seemingly rushed vote to build a new jail, which will be more than half-filled with mentally ill inmates.
Case in point: Just look at what happened to Phillip Cho.
The first time he arrived at Twin Towers, Cho was terrified and confused. He was so convinced that Anna and his $600 million windfall were real that he had no idea why he had been arrested.
But he was not without allies.
At his first court appearance in Pasadena, Cho was assigned a mental health caseworker, "Ms. Garcia," who recognized his nonviolent nature and promised that within two weeks, she could get him into a residential treatment center that specialized in Asian-Americans.
"Until then, just stay in your cell — don't mingle with other inmates," she cautioned.
But the waiting list for community treatment beds turned out to be backed up for months.
Dr. Marvin Southard, director of L.A. County's Department of Mental Health, points out that Los Angeles has had a diversion program in place since the early 1990s. But despite what Southard says, it's largely worthless when there's no space.
Cho spent his first sentence — about three months — entirely at Twin Towers, which opened in 1997, nearly a decade after a previous Board of Supervisors promoted it as a major expansion for mentally ill offenders. Those former supervisors used much of the same rhetoric adopted by today's backers of the $2 billion dual-towers plan.
At Twin Towers, Cho got the medications he needed — Seroquel and Paxil — but pills alone could not counter the nightmarish effects of jail itself on the mentally ill. His schizophrenia and paranoia grew worse, especially when he was transferred to Floor 7.
"Everyone was scared of the seventh floor," Cho says. In a self-published book, Twin Towers Los Angeles, Cho later wrote that it was common knowledge among inmates that you didn't want to get sent to Floor 7.
That's the suicide-watch floor.
Although he'd never voiced concerns about harming himself, Cho was transferred to Floor 7, stripped naked, searched for contraband and then given a "dress" — the inmates' nickname for the garment they wear. Cho's dress hung loosely about his body and wouldn't close along its worn Velcro attachment, so he was half-naked. It was the only item in his cell, therefore serving as his pillow, blanket and towel.
Cho says his cell was completely soundproofed. He could see people outside the door but couldn't hear them. His only way to tell time was by the food passed through a slot in his door at mealtimes.
"The silence was hardest to take. ... The only noise you hear is the banging of the pipes at night," he wrote. Who banged the pipes or where the sound came from was a mystery.
His only companion was Anna, who persisted despite his medications. Even when Cho was transferred from suicide watch onto a regular "pod" floor with other inmates, he could not shake her. Cho started to read the apocalyptic Book of Revelation in a Bible given to him by another inmate, and Anna gradually convinced him the world was coming to an end.
After three months in jail, Cho was released — but he was barely functional.
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It would be only a matter of weeks before he was re-arrested.
In its defense of the new jail plan, the Sheriff's Department says Twin Towers is severely overcrowded and Men's Central across the street is so outmoded that it's unsafe for staff and inmates alike. The angular design of its corridors allows inmates to hide and stage ambushes on deputies. And there's been a spike in "gassings" — when inmates throw bodily fluids, usually urine or feces, at passing deputies.
Almost all top county officials — and the ACLU — agree that Men's Central Jail should be replaced with a safer, more humane facility.
The dissent is over the size, ethics and price of the new plan, and particularly its central feature — the thousands of beds to incarcerate the mentally ill.
At 3,200, L.A. County's jails already house the largest population of mentally ill in the nation. A significant portion — about 1,200 — is behind bars for misdemeanors or nonviolent offenses. Many of these 1,200 inmates would immediately benefit from the type of community-based treatment long used in Miami, Nashville and San Francisco.
L.A.'s lagging effort to catch up to modern practices is known to many county officials, a few of whom raised concerns about Vanir Construction Management's $2 billion plan before the Board of Supervisors voted to adopt it in May. In fact, six of the seven candidates who ran for county sheriff in the June primary (including Jim McDonnell, the respected Long Beach police chief and frontrunner against Paul Tanaka in November) asked the supervisors to postpone their decision until a new sheriff was elected.
District Attorney Jackie Lacey commanded the most attention when, at the eleventh hour in May, she was asked to speak to the five powerful supervisors — and was surprised to learn that the supervisors were about to select a final jail plan from Vanir's list of five options.
Lacey had reason to be surprised. The previous December, she'd created a Criminal Justice Mental Health Task Force to look into incarceration alternatives for the mentally ill, and the group had grown to include more than 70 members of the mental health community. During her last-minute presentation to the supervisors, she made clear that her group had found better ways than new jails to approach mentally ill arrestees and stop many from re-offending.
Lacey didn't publicly oppose the supervisors' vote, but her presentation served to highlight L.A.'s backward jail system — and has become a rallying point for opposition to the supervisors' $2 billion decision.
Evidence unearthed by the Weekly suggests that Lacey's task-force findings had little chance of affecting the board's vote. The train had already rolled out of the station, and it appears that the district attorney was kept in the dark until it was too late.
Lacey told the Weekly she was not given the specifics of Vanir's jail proposal until one day before the scheduled vote, when she was asked by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas to testify.
She does not believe the supervisors were aware of the existence of her Criminal Justice Mental Health Task Force until she appeared before them on May 6.
That's troubling, since each board member employs a large staff to help the supes oversee $28.5 billion in annual spending. Some supervisorial staffers have been focused on the jail problem and jail policy for months, even years. It is unclear why the DA and the Board of Supervisors were unaware of one another's efforts until shortly before the vote.
Assistant Sheriff McDonald told the Weekly that leading up to the vote, her department was "intimately" involved with the DA's task force, the work undertaken by consultant Vanir Construction and the efforts by the Board of Supervisors to make a decision.
McDonald says the DA was not put in the loop during months of behind-the-scenes work on Vanir's jail proposal because Lacey's task force was asked by the Sheriff's Department to focus only on community treatment for the mentally ill.
That kind of black-and-white view, in which mental health "diversion" programs for disturbed offenders and jail planning are treated as mutually exclusive, does not seem to support the "comprehensive system" McDonald says she's looking for.
It also raises serious questions about an $18,000 trip taken last October by a group of L.A. County law enforcement officials, including Sheriff Cmdr. David Fender, who flew to Miami and saw firsthand its success in diverting mentally ill arrestees into treatment — part of the group's "best practices" tour around the nation. Documents obtained by the Weekly show that L.A. Sheriff's officials met with Miami's top brass and received detailed "how-to" guides explaining the steps required to establish a comprehensive mental health diversion program from the ground up.
Yet nothing came of what the group learned in the other cities.
Assistant DA Bill Hodgman, who was on that fact-finding trip, delivered the how-to reports to his boss, Lacey, galvanizing her mental health task force to push for change in Los Angeles.
Yet the Board of Supervisors never received the documents from the DA or the Sheriff's Department.
Supervisor Yaroslavsky, who voted against the new jail, complained about not being briefed. "I think I have been, as a member of this board, somewhat shortchanged by not having that information available to me as I'm being asked to make a decision — a $2 billion decision."
Could the vote by the Board of Supervisors — which some critics call a nod to the past that could negatively affect tens of thousands of lives — have been forced by an obscure fiscal deadline?
The Weekly's request for public records concerning the vote and events leading up to it, made to the office of outgoing County Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka, shows that the five supervisors faced a use-it-or-lose-it deadline to secure $100 million in state funding for a women's detention center in Mira Loma — which has nothing to do with Men's Central Jail.
The state money, made available through Assembly Bill 900, is set to expire later this year. County officials didn't want to lose the huge sum. For reasons that remain murky, the far more complicated proposals to replace Men's Central Jail were lumped together with the Mira Loma facility plan in the documents prepared by Vanir Construction.
In a March 18 memo to the Board of Supervisors obtained by the Weekly, CEO Fujioka told the supervisors they had to pass one of the five Vanir proposals for replacing Men's Central Jail in order to secure the state money for Mira Loma.
Asked to explain, Fujioka cited "business reasons" and Assistant Sheriff McDonald — for a second time in conversations with the Weekly — called it Los Angeles County's way of creating a "comprehensive system."
It seems clear that the mentally ill who overpopulate Los Angeles County's jails took a backseat to other issues on decision makers' minds. The systemic restructuring that could have helped people such as Phillip Cho was not seriously considered.
Without substantial changes in how the county spends its $2 billion, experts in Miami tell the Weekly many will suffer as Phillip Cho has suffered.
After being released from his stint at Twin Towers, Cho was greeted by Ms. Garcia and another mental health caseworker, Ms. Kang, who offered to take him to the residential facility for Asian-Americans that Ms. Garcia had initially proposed, La Casa Mental Health Rehabilitation Center in Long Beach.
Cho agreed to go. Because his jail sentence was completed, however, he was free to leave La Casa anytime.
After watching TV in the common room, he imagined dark skeletal figures on the screen with pipes and syringes in their hands. When one of the skeletal figures swallowed the TV screen with its mouth, revealing a field full of dead children, Cho demanded to leave. La Casa had to let him go.
He returned to Pasadena to book a room at the then–Ritz Carlton Hotel. He was still convinced of his immense wealth, so it came as a surprise when the front desk informed him that he couldn't afford a basic room. Cho sat for a while in the lobby, and soon a couple officers arrived and arrested him for trespassing and violating his probation.
When they reviewed Cho's criminal record, they whisked him right back to a jail cell in Twin Towers.
That sort of "he's your problem" approach — dumping the mentally ill on the doorsteps of the jails — is what feeds L.A.'s grossly inflated recidivism rate.
Nearly 75 percent of inmates with mental illnesses end up back in L.A.'s jails, an astronomical statistic when compared with other U.S. cities.
Before L.A. amassed the nation's largest jail population of mentally ill people, that crown belonged to Miami. But in 2000, Miami-Dade County implemented a mental health diversion program that cut back the re-offense rate to a mere 20 percent — 55 points below Los Angeles'.
In fact, at a time when L.A. is moving forward on a new $2 billion facility, the program in Miami has been so successful that the city actually closed a jail.
Cindy Schwartz, the project's director in Miami, told the Weekly, "We knew we had to be creative. This isn't just about handing out medications; it's about taking a holistic approach, where every person is given an individualized plan that looks into long-term work and housing."
And taxpayers would be interested to know that such a program actually is cheaper than jail, as Steve Fields of San Francisco's Progress Foundation can attest. His program is county-funded, and Progress Foundation's full-service treatment is up to four times less expensive than keeping someone in a cell.
According to California's Administrative Office of the Courts, the yearly cost to support an individual with mental illness in a housing program in Los Angeles is $20,412.
It costs about $60,000 a year to jail him.
"I don't know what is taking [Los Angeles] so long," Fields says. "Counties that wanted to do this in California have had access to state funding for a long time."
Assistant Sheriff McDonald defends L.A.'s jail construction plan, saying, "No one can predict what the mental health population will look like in the future, so we need maximum adaptability." She told the Weekly not to take the figures and descriptions in the more than 300-page Vanir jail plan too literally — that sometime in the future, programs designed for the jail could be flexible.
That may be. But it's one thing to look to the future. It's quite another to consider the people who are currently trapped in the system.
Phillip Cho still looks upon his previous life with a sense of wonder.
He was a top graduate from UCLA's Anderson School of Management, with an MBA, a fiancée and a lucrative consulting job at KPMG, one of the Big Four auditing firms.
When he lived in San Francisco, KPMG used to send him on all-expenses-paid consulting trips to Los Angeles, where he was picked up in a limo, put up in Beverly Hills' Hotel Nikko and sent on business lunches featuring lobster and filet mignon at Spago, Ivy and Morton's Steakhouse.
Then the schizophrenia hit.
He lost everything, including his fiancée.
"At first, I was scared to share my story with what we call 'normal people.' I know, because I used to be normal," he says.
Since getting out of Twin Towers, Cho has focused on addressing the abuses he endured there.
"I want the world to know: Most people who go into L.A.'s jails come out worse — like me."
Continuing that vicious cycle, after Cho was arrested at the Ritz-Carlton for trespassing and ended up back at Twin Towers, his court hearing went poorly. Upon learning that Cho had voluntarily signed out of La Casa, the judge wasn't willing to consider another community treatment center. The hearing lasted about 10 seconds.
"Come back in one month for re-evaluation," the judge said, not giving Cho a chance to respond.
Cho was reassigned to a Twin Towers pod with other mentally ill inmates, who had been separated by neighborhood and race. The men in the pod had created a bartering system to exchange psych meds so they could get high by grinding and snorting them. Cho says there were three racial camps inside — blacks, Latinos and "woods" (whites). Cho, the only Asian in the mental health wing, joined the blacks.
Cho says that his tension over the racial politics, drug abuse and gangs hardly approached his terror of the Sheriff's deputies. Few of them are trained mental health professionals, and Cho says many dealt with the inmates as if they were animals.
One of his own run-ins with the jailers occurred after yet another court hearing in Pasadena.
"I see you've been taking your meds. ... But let's give it three more weeks," the judge said.
Cho was livid that, again, he could not get a word in edgewise. Back at Twin Towers, he started yelling.
"This place is hell! If you want some of me, come and get it!"
He says a deputy dragged him out of his cell and taunted, "You're really in shit this time, Cho — what's your problem? You think you run things? We're in charge!"
He claims the deputy handcuffed him to a chair and started kicking him in the head. Cho was resilient, not willing to give the deputy the satisfaction of seeing him cringe. This only made the deputy angrier.
The deputy allegedly forced Cho outside and chained him to a door handle in the exercise yard. Cho says he was left to stand there overnight, unable to sit, handcuffs cutting deep into his wrists.
He recalls that a jail trustee who found him the next morning shook his head, saying, "Wow, I can't believe he didn't scream once."
Abuse by deputies is just one reason the mentally ill languish in jail. Dr. Terry Kupers, a professor at the Wright Institute in San Francisco and a leading researcher into the effects of solitary confinement on mental health, has been to Twin Towers to evaluate it for the ACLU.
"I'll say that there are some dedicated mental health professionals who work in L.A.'s jail system," he allows. "But the problem is that, no matter how good the mental health facilities are inside a jail, it's still inside a jail! ... The priorities will always be incarceration first, treatment second. That needs to change."
Things only changed for Phillip Cho when, after he was released from his second term at Twin Towers, he got picked up by Santa Monica police officers accustomed to dealing with mentally ill people. Days earlier, he'd sat on the beach and watched God appear as a naked man walking out of the center of the sun. Anna was back, too.
Cho was arrested in the lobby of another hotel. But rather than transfer him to jail, Santa Monica police took him where a clearly sick man needed to be: Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
That's all it took to end the vicious cycle.
"It was like a black-and-white difference between the hospital and the jail," Cho says.
After a few months of treatment, Cho was released. That was eight years ago. He has not been in jail since.
Cho believes that if he'd received court-ordered care in a community treatment center from the get-go, he never would have ended up in Twin Towers, been beaten, been psychologically tormented, descended so far from reality.
That's the true failure that L.A. County's new jail plan represents. Even with its expanded mental health facilities, it does not address the core issues underlying the broken system. As other urban areas have demonstrated, a fundamentally different approach works when responding to mentally ill people who break the law.
Jackie Lacey continues her mental health task force efforts, and is set to deliver a report to the Board of Supervisors this fall, when the five will decide whether to add $20 million to L.A.'s overwhelmed mental health diversion programs.
But there's been no talk, yet, of scaling back the $2 billion Men's Central Jail replacement project — or of redirecting a large chunk of those funds into treatment that slashes criminal behavior among the mentally ill.
There's still time to change course in L.A., though. The final construction contract for the new jail has yet to be awarded, and political candidates running in November for Yaroslavsky's open seat on the board have vowed to bring the issue to another vote.
There are plenty of helping hands around the nation if L.A. gets serious about reforming its system. "So long as there's a will, there's a way," says Cindy Swartz from Miami, referring to the early days of that city's ultimately successful reform.
The question is whether L.A. County officials have the political will to step up and fight for people like Phillip Cho.
Phillip Cho's book can be found at amazon.com/Twin-Towers-Angeles-Insung-Philip/dp/1491817623.
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