UPDATE: The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has unanimously voted to meet on Sept. 1 to reconsider its controversial vote to replace Men's Central Jail. See update below.

It came as a surprise to nearly everyone. After years of tangled disputes and false starts, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors held an unannounced vote on Aug. 11 to build a new “treatment-based” jail for inmates with drug addiction, mental illness and diseases on the site of the notorious and badly deteriorating L.A. County Men's Central Jail.

The uproar has yet to die out over the $2 billion decision, which was not on the agenda. It represents one of the greatest policy decisions the five supervisors will ever make yet was backed by only three of them — Sheila Kuehl, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael Antonovich. Former U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis abstained and Don Knabe voted no.

After a week of public outcry, media criticism and hammering by the ACLU of Southern California, which called the board's vote an illegal act that “invites a lawsuit” because the supervisors failed to notify the public, the board on Tuesday was considering a motion to re-discuss last week's decision, in September.

With District Attorney Jackie Lacey refusing to comment — she is among those pushing for an incarceration approach for the mentally ill that brings badly lagging L.A. into modern times — others stepped forward. Among them is Solis, who tells L.A. Weekly that even she was caught off guard last week. “I learned very late, the evening before, that there was going to be a motion to restart discussion on the jail,” she says.

Peter Eliasberg of the ACLU of Southern California says of the supervisors' Aug. 11 vote: “There's no emergency here. They just decided they wanted to ignore the requirements of the Brown Act, and they did.”

Some supervisors say the rush to approve the treatment-based jail, in what several experts said was clear violation of state law, was propelled by their fear of losing funds for a proposed Mira Loma women's jail in Lancaster — a situation created by the board itself. The two jails were fiscally tied together by the supervisors' policy, established in 2012, that development of both jails move forward in tandem, Tony Bell, spokesman for Antonovich, told the Weekly via email.

Under its rules, the board was close to losing $100 million for its Lancaster jail. “If the county continues to miss dates, they're rolling the dice,” says Magi Work of the Board of State and Community Corrections.

But last week, the supervisors still lacked a carefully designed plan for their new jail downtown.

Critics, for example, see the facility's proposed huge size as a major and unresolved flaw. In addition, the plan envisions stripping the Sheriff and the L.A. County Department of Mental Health of their longtime power over the jail's mental and medical operations — and handing it to the historically less tainted L.A. County Department of Health Services. But the dramatic shift is little more than a skeleton concept.

On the jail-size issue, previous estimates said the facility should hold about 4,800 prisoners, but the supervisors unexpectedly reduced the figure to 3,885, approving a diversion plan to help reroute the remaining 1,000 mentally ill, sick and drug-addicted inmates to community treatment centers.

Eliasberg and other critics say the supervisors didn't go far enough — that having 3,885 beds will encourage county officials to jail the mentally ill instead of embracing forward-thinking treatment centers.

No matter how “well-intentioned” the supervisors are, Eliasberg says, the time is past when L.A. should house most mentally ill offenders in correction-oriented cells. Solis, who is largely on the same page, last week introduced a failed amendment to reduce L.A.'s jail population by 15 percent by 2025 — the motion would have effectively cut beds at the new jail to 3,243, according to her spokeswoman.

A year ago, in its story “L.A. County Jail Plan Is a $2 Billion Blunder That Embraces Incarceration, Not Treatment, for Mentally Ill,” the Weekly reported that Miami, San Francisco and Nashville are far more successful in rehabbing mentally ill prisoners because they have moved beyond the old corrections model.

Eliasberg says he “sure as hell” hopes that the Department of Health Services will oversee the new jail — and not the Department of Mental Health.

For two decades, the treatment of mentally ill inmates under the Sheriff's Department and the Department of Mental Health has been deemed insufficient. In 1997, a federal investigation found mental health care to be “constitutionally inadequate” and to demonstrate a “deliberate indifference to inmates' serious mental health needs.”

In 2002, the Department of Justice and the feds got access to prisoners, documents and personnel, and L.A. County officials agreed to dramatic changes. After a 12-year investigation and some reforms by the county, the feds saw progress. They also found that overall mental health care was poor and “deplorable environmental conditions” remained.

There are “continuous, renewed complaints,” of mistreatment of mentally ill inmates in L.A. jails, Eliasberg says — including from inmates such as Phillip Cho, a paranoid schizophrenic who served time in Twin Towers and quickly deteriorated. Cho was transferred to the suicide-watch floor and told the Weekly about his harrowing experience, reduced to living with no pillow or blanket. Upon his release, he was a shell of his former self.

Phillip Cho, who has paranoid schizophrenia, endured horrible treatment when he landed in Men's Central Jail in 2005.; Credit: Photo by Ted Soqui

Phillip Cho, who has paranoid schizophrenia, endured horrible treatment when he landed in Men's Central Jail in 2005.; Credit: Photo by Ted Soqui

“At first, I was scared to share my story with what we call 'normal people.' I know, because I used to be normal,” Cho told the Weekly.

Another witness to conditions inside, Kristina Ronnquist, a USC graduate student earning her degree in social work, thought she had landed her dream internship in 2013 at the Department of Mental Health in the Century Regional Detention Facility women's jail.

But, she tells the Weekly, instead she saw a culture of gossip and overall callousness toward inmates by Sheriff's deputies and Department of Mental Health professionals such as clinicians.

“Women are basically held in their cells, heavily medicated, and provided minimal support to essentially 'make sure they don't die,'” Ronnquist finally wrote in a letter to the Board of Supervisors in 2014.

One situation Ronnquist alleges she witnessed repeatedly — a lack of “discharge planning” for shaky inmates not ready to be on the streets — is in line with findings by the DOJ.

In her letter, Ronnquist described an “inhumane and toxic” environment that “exacerbates symptoms of mental illness” and was in need of oversight. “How are your meds? Are you hearing anything? Are you seeing anything? OK, goodbye” was, she says a not-uncommon interaction with patients.

Dr. Marv Southard, director of the Department of Mental Health since 1998, initiated an investigation. He tells the Weekly that he found management “could be better” and staffing was insufficient. The rest of Ronnquist's allegations were “unsubstantiated” or remained under review, he says.

“She declined to give any specific incidents, about either inmates or staff” — she would not reveal any names. “So there were no specific incidents for us to investigate,” Southard says.

Before Southard's investigation, Ronnquist met with DMH program head Laura Bastianelli about her complaints, but says it was a confrontational atmosphere in which she felt uncomfortable sharing specific names or incidents. The Weekly asked Bastianelli for comment, but Kathleen Piche, spokeswoman for the department, wrote in an email that Southard would answer for Bastianelli.

In an April 2015 followup, Ronnquist wrote to the county supervisors, “I was astounded that DMH had concluded its investigation into some of my concerns without even speaking to me. I had much more detailed information that I could and would have provided.”

The supervisors have approved a plan to take jail medical and mental health oversight away from the Sheriff and Department of Mental Health, and hand it to the Department of Health Services, as Eliasberg and other reformers want.

It is unclear how this possibly unprecedented shift of authority can happen, and when. A lot of hope is anchored in the proposed “treatment-based” downtown jail as a possible catalyst.

“We've got 20 years of failure on the part of [the Department of Mental Health], so I certainly hope we can do significantly better now that the department no longer has authority over the job,” Eliasberg says.

UPDATED at 2:39 p.m.: 

The supervisors will convene on Sept. 1 to revisit their jail plan and possibly revote on it—or, though highly unlikely, consider a competing proposal. Most observers predict the board will simply give sufficient time to hear the public comments for and against their Aug. 11 decision to comply with the open government Brown Act, and then vote on the 3,885-bed treatment prison for downtown Los Angeles. 

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