Black Lives Matter co-founder and Reform L.A. Jails chairperson Patrisse Khan-Cullors is fighting to protect incarcerated individuals in Los Angeles and the rights of people suffering from mental health issues.
Recently, Los Angeles County announced a partnership with McCarthy Building Companies, a prison-building contractor, to replace a men's jail with a new mental health hospital for inmates. While this idea may appear to be a progressive move on paper, in reality, the contract with McCarthy could actually pose a greater threat to both the incarcerated and mentally ill population.
At the beginning of July, Khan-Cullors called for Los Angeles County officials to cancel plans to build a new mental health hospital by using the hashtag #CancelMcCarthyContract.
“Jail expansion is unnecessary,” Khan-Cullors told BET, adding that the incarcerated population is “mainly homeless, mentally ill, poor, and minorities. We need to look at the root causes of incarceration, like poverty, lack of access to mental health care, and addiction. Incarceration, which doesn’t fix these issues.”
Khan-Cullors believes the new plan to replace a jail with a mental health hospital would be a “death trap.”
Khan-Cullors argues the creation of such facilities would also put inmates with actual mental health issues at greater risk, citing how the Corrections Department inspector general, Roy Wesley, found the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, which was built by McCarthy, to have failing grades on eight of the ten indicators of adequate medical and mental health care.
"It's so bad that one prisoner ate their eyeballs, which is so disturbing to even have to utter," Khan-Cullors told Newsweek.
"I feel very, very badly for the people of Stockton who have to deal with this behemoth of a building in their community," she continued. "People with mental illness are not being treated the way they should be, not receiving the care they should be."
Additionally, Khan-Cullors fears the creation of this facility would criminalize mental illness in “backward and inhumane” fashion.
"Right now, there are as many as 5,000 people who are in county jails suffering from some sort of mental illness," she said. "We don't put cancer patients in jail or HIV patients in jail just because they have leukemia or are HIV-positive."
“We don’t have decentralized mental health clinics, we don’t have facilities for victims of domestic abuse,” Khan-Cullors told BET. “Part of the work for us is to realize that many people are ending up in jails because they are poor, Black, brown, sick, and/or abused women.”
Khan-Cullors understands the need for effective mental health treatment because her older brother Monte, who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder as a teen, was beaten and arrested by Sheriff Deputies in L.A. County because of behavior triggered by his condition.
"If we can stop a mental health jail in Los Angeles, we can stop mental health jails across the country," she said. "Whenever Los Angeles does anything, good or bad, we lead the way."
In addition to her work to stop the mental health jail, Khan-Cullors is also working to probe secret societies within the Sheriff’s Department. Earlier this week, a Board of Supervisors in Los Angeles unanimously passed a motion to strengthen investigations into these groups.
“Deputy cliques and secret societies have been happening for decades inside the department. In the '90s there was a judge who was asked to do a full report of the jails. Within that report, the deputy gangs were exposed to be responsible for the harming of people inside the jails,” Khan-Cullors told BET. “A group called the 3000 Boys, who were on the 3000 level floor in jail, were responsible for the terrorizing of people inside the jail. This is a very disturbing issue.”
This recent motion will lead to stronger public oversight and the elimination of corruption and misconduct in the Sheriff’s Department.
“This is an amazing motion. Many groups have been calling for subpoena power for the civilian oversight commission. Our initiative to move money out of corrections and into alternatives would also provide for the current inspector general subpoena power,” she explained.
Khan-Cullors wants the general population to understand how our prison population is too high and we need to do more to help people instead of locking them away.
“This should be seen as a model, if we end the McCarthy contract in Los Angeles, we actually set a precedent for the rest for the country, to prioritize people with mental illness and to give them the life they deserve,” she said.
(Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images)