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LA activists mount new effort to block mental health jail

It was an unusual scene on Temple Street outside Tuesday’s meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors: 100 grey metal bunk beds were blocking traffic.

They were there as part of a protest against the county’s plans to build a new jail in downtown L.A. for mentally ill inmates. The 3,885 bed facility would replace the aging Men’s Central Jail. The lockup is part of an estimated $2 billion jail expansion project that includes a new women’s jail at the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster.

Long before supervisors first approved the plan in 2015, activists said the money spent on construction and operation should instead go to mental health programs in the community.

Placing people with mental health issues behind bars doesn’t make any sense, said Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition.

“You’re in a cage,” she said outside the supervisors' meeting. “For anyone that goes in with a mental illness, it [the cage] exacerbates it.”

The vast majority of mentally ill inmates were arrested for a minor offense and should be treated in a medical setting, McGill said.

But sheriff’s officials say they would be able to provide better mental health care in the new state-of-the-art facility, which would be designed for treatment. Supervisors are expected to consider an environmental impact report on the project next month, but it could be 10 years before it opens.

Citing the need for updated mental health beds as the number of inmates with mental health issues rises, none of the five members of the Board of Supervisors has said they’re opposed to moving forward.

Patrissse Cullors of Black Lives Matter admits stopping the project is an uphill battle.

 “It is, but no change would happen in America if it wasn’t," Cullers said.