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LA County jails: Feds seek oversight to improve plight of mentally ill

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles

In a dramatic move designed to force reforms, the United States Department of Justice has said it intends to seek a “court-enforceable agreement” to improve how Los Angeles County treats thousands of mentally ill jail inmates. The federal government used a similar “consent decree” to impose changes at the once problem-plagued LAPD at a cost of tens of millions of dollars a year.

For mentally ill people, L.A. County lockups can be a nightmare. In a letter earlier this year, the department described “dimly lit, vermin-infested, noisy, unsanitary, cramped and crowed” living conditions inside the jails. They are conditions that can send someone who is unstable over the edge. (You can read more about the letter here.)

“There is inadequate mental health care to prevent prisoners from becoming suicidal, to identify suicidal prisoners, or to prevent prisoners from going into crisis,” the Department of Justice said.

It issued a second letter Sept. 25 that was obtained by KPCC. The latest letter acknowledged improvement, but added that “the issues … have been longstanding and will take concerted and sustained effort to address.”

The agency is in the process of drafting a proposed consent decree. Under it, a federal judge would appoint a monitor to oversee jail reforms. The county would be legally obligated to follow the monitor's direction.

For years, county officials have been struggling to improve conditions for mentally ill inmates at the Twin Towers and Men’s Central Jail facilities. The facilities are operated by the Sheriff’s Department. The County Department of Mental Health provides care.

“I wish we could have worked this out short of a consent decree,” said Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, a candidate for Sheriff. He helped implement the LAPD’s consent decree. “It was onerous, it was expensive and it was very labor intensive,” he said. “But it did force change. It forced transformation of the organization.”

McDonnell, his opponent Paul Tanaka, and mental health advocates agree many mentally ill inmates who commit non-violent offenses should not be locked up in the first place. Tanaka did not return calls for comment.

In 1996, the Department of Justice began looking into the facilities. In 2002, the department and county entered into a Memorandum of Agreement to resolve issues related to mental health care. The county has failed to fully comply, according to the Department of Justice.

“The problem facing the County about the constitutionality of mental health services and suicide prevention in its jails is serious…and the stakes are high,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas in a motion to be considered by the county Board of Supervisors next week.

The motion proposes the creation of a Jails Special Counsel.

Click here to read the federal government's latest letter to the county.