Los Angeles County operates the largest jail system in the world, and while it has an incarceration rate below the national average, its jails are alarmingly overcrowded. According to LA County, inmates with mental health needs are overrepresented in its jails and are not able to be safely housed in a multi-person cell.
On this week’s “In Focus SoCal,” Tanya McRae sits down with LA City Council member Eunisses Hernandez, who represents the 1st District, which houses the controversial Men’s Central Jail, which is slated to close by March 2025. The council member has been working to close down the jail for years, which was the initial mission of her community-based organization La Defensa.
“There are thousands of people in there that we could better serve if we had access to community-based mental health services, drug treatment. We have created so many barriers to develop the services that we need,” said Hernandez. “That’s why we have over 30% of the people in the LA County jail system who have some sort of mental health need.”
Hernandez emphasized the need for alternatives to incarceration.
“What I would like to see in place of Men’s Central Jail is a restorative care village, which is a place where people can access mental health services, inpatient and outpatient," Hernandez said. "Where people can access drug treatment services if they need.”
Spectrum News 1’s Kate Cagle introduces us to Tanuomaaleu You, a high-frequency offender in LA County jails who was addicted to crack and performing sex work to survive. He found himself back in Men’s Central Jail in 2020 — one of an estimated 5,000 inmates in the system struggling with mental health. He was facing seven years in prison for aggravated assault when a doctor inside MCJ flagged him as a candidate for treatment. He is now part of a small program run by the Office of Diversion and Re-entry where he had access to on-site medical services, therapy and case management. He now lives in permanent housing and is working toward his bachelor’s degree.
The program, which was started in 2015, is about to undergo a major expansion, led by LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell. This latest motion would add up to 1300 beds by 2025.
“I asked the supervisor if she was worried about maintaining quality as the program scales up, and she said, ‘No.’ Her biggest worry is maintaining funding and securing funding sources to make sure these beds can stay open for years to come,” Cagle said.
McRae also sits down with Sam Lewis, Executive Director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which is empowering and supporting currently and formerly incarcerated people with re-entry services and opportunities.
“The Hope and Redemption team is about 30 former life prisoners. They go back inside California prisons and they run rehabilitative programs, programming that demonstrates to one that a second chance is possible,” said Lewis. “Success is possible if you do the work while you’re on the inside.”
To learn more about the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, visit antirecidivism.org.