A coalition of activists and organizers from Reform L.A. Jails, Justice L.A. and others successfully swayed a majority of Los Angeles County supervisors to vote yes on ending a contract with McCarthy Building Cos. to build an enormous $2.2 billion mental health prison.
On Tuesday (August 13), the 3,885-bed facility, which was slated to house pretrial detainees with mental health and substance abuse issues, was scrapped in large part due to years of activism from prison reform groups and added to a growing nationwide trend of halting the expansion of mass incarceration in favor of investing in community-based treatment programs and other alternatives.
Jail reform activists previously praised the supervisors for proposing a fresh start, claiming the policy shift is evidence the county’s leaders appear ready to welcome a more decentralized and rehabilitative approach to treating mental illness rather than punishing it.
“[The jail defeat] was historic because Los Angeles is the largest jailer in the world, and so the fact that four out of five county board supervisors made the decision to cancel the contract, just a few months after they were going to move forward with the contract, is incredibly significant and really is a show of people power,” Patrisse Cullors, founder and chairperson of Reform L.A. Jails and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told BET.com.
“It was more than just us protesting,” she added. “It was us having meetings with elected officials. It was us being able to organize healthcare providers. We had several people who worked inside jails who were either a nurse, or a physician, or a psychiatrist come and speak out and say this is not the ideal way to give anybody care. It really became a movement and that movement only happened with us organizing to get thousands of people in Los Angeles to say no to this.”
Cullors was a main force in the #CancelMcCarthyContract campaign. Last week, the group personally delivered a pre-litigation letter to Sachi Hamai, the CEO of L.A. County, and McCarthy Building Company CEO Mike Bolen, advising both parties that swift legal action will be taken if they refuse to cancel the jail expansion contract.
Reform L.A. Jails claims the Board awarded a multi-billion dollar contract to the building company without receiving comparing bids from multiple vendors, which California law requires.
According to Los Angeles County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, more than half of people with serious mental health needs in their jail population may be eligible for diversion into community-based services.
The supervisor’s decision to scrap the mental health jail comes after a rally last Thursday morning at county headquarters.
Dozens of people reportedly attended the rally, including Juan Correa, whose son died in a L.A. County Jail, the ACLU’s Peter Eliasberg, Queen Sugar actress Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Grey’s Anatomy actor Jason George, actor, activist, and co-founder of BLD PWR Kendrick Sampson, and UTLA Vice President Cecily Myart-Cruz, among others.
For Cullors, this latest victory for jail and prison reform will hopefully be the start of a nationwide trend of choosing to build holistic and alternative treatment centers for people with mental health and substance abuse issues rather than more prisons, which largely don’t employ anyone trained to assess those groups.
“We are seeing this as a national blueprint,” she said. “If we can do this in Los Angeles, we want to take this across the country – county to county. We’re dealing with the federal government right now and it’s not what we want to be doing, so I think local governments are going to be able to shape the conditions for people with severe mental illness.”