“Mental Health Jail” Is an Oxymoron

Mental Health JailJails create and exacerbate mental health problems.

It does not take a genius to conclude, and yet, countless studies have been proven it: if you remove someone from their daily life, their support system, their work, their sense of meaning and community, and put them into an extremely controlled and violent environment that is meant to punish them and take away their dignity, they will suffer physically, emotionally and mentally. This is even truer for the large number of people who enter jail already suffering from mental illness.

And yet, last month the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors endorsed a plan to expand the most notorious jail system and the largest de facto mental health facility in the world by building a “mental health jail” and a women’s jail. They will cost the county $2.3 billion to construct and $456 million a year to operate, with debt service payments guaranteed to at least double the cost.

At the same meeting, Supervisor Mark-Ridley Thomas’s proposal to offer diversion from jail for certain people suffering from mental illness passed unanimously. But if the supervisors plan to take this proposal seriously, why would they build a costly mental health jail?

In response, the Vera Institute made it clear that to save money and lives, the county must prioritize keeping “people who come into contact with law enforcement because of mental illness, intoxication, or homelessness from becoming unnecessarily enmeshed in the criminal justice system.”

In Los Angeles the numbers of people with acute mental health conditions continue to increase. Last month Dr. Marvin Southard, the director of the Department of Mental Health, stated that the traumas of arrest and incarceration were among the leading causes of rising mental illness. He voiced a concern about the lack of community programs that leaves jail as the default option for those to whom treatment is unavailable.

District Attorney Jackie Lacey stated, “the use of jails as a surrogate mental health ward has resulted in extremely high costs. The current system is, simply put, unjust.”

Lacey talked about Miami-Dade County pre-booking and post-booking diversion programs for people with mental illness that could reduce the number of people in L.A. jails by 2,000 if applied here.

James Austin recommended implementing a pretrial release program and expanded use of split sentencing at 35 percent (not our current 5 percent), which would reduce the jail population by 3,000. These policy options and others have been proven effective and could reduce the entire “need” for new jail cells.

Let’s not kid ourselves; the sheriff is not and cannot be a provider of primary mental health care and treatment. While the Sheriff’s Department must vastly improve the ways it deals with the mentally ill in jails, no new facility and no new management is going to make sheriff deputies into therapists.

With $2 billion, L.A. could construct 2,152 single-parent family apartments, 1,792 transitional apartments for the homeless, 280 youth centers, 60 vocational centers, or 240 assisted living facilities for the mentally ill.

Mental Health JailGiven all the lobbying L.A. County has been doing in Sacramento for more jail money, we suspect they won’t take these alternatives seriously. They are certainly not encouraged by a state Legislature that just approved $500 million in new jail construction money.

We don’t need more jail cells. We need representatives willing to protect California’s most vulnerable populations from a future where going to jail is a prerequisite for getting access to mental health, drug treatment and social programs. The way out of this shameful situation is not new jails with “therapeutic” mission statements. It is true diversion of the mentally ill from jail.

Diana Zuñiga and Patrisse Cullors-Brignac


  1. Luis Lozano says

    It goes without saying that when your only tool is a hammer then every problem is a nail. In this case our only tool to deal with homelessness, drug addiction, poverty, unemployment is to put these people in jail or prison. Our politicians are not usually our best and brightest but they sure know how to keep the money flowing to their supporters.

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