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Sonali Kolhatkar: Abolishing the Nation’s Largest Jail System

L.A. County activists are working to replace violent jails with mental health facilities, and to reallocate funding from incarceration toward social services.

A yearslong movement to replace Los Angeles jails with restorative-justice-based initiatives is making progress in spite of numerous challenges. L.A. County is home to the nation’s largest jail system, one in which an average of nearly 30 people die each year, many under mysterious circumstances. The most notorious facility in L.A. County is Men’s Central Jail—the largest jail in the United States and one of the largest in the world.

Conditions at Men’s Central are so dangerous that it has been under federal oversight for nearly 50 years. Located just minutes from downtown Los Angeles and Chinatown, the sprawling cement structure is surrounded by barbed-wire-topped walls. Inside are some 12,000 people awaiting trial after arrest, or prison after conviction—and some of the most notorious law enforcement gangs in the country. 

Years of reform efforts driven by elected officials and federal oversight have resulted in little to no progress toward ending the neglect and countless abuses documented at the facility. Activists say it’s past time to shut down the system altogether. Grassroots groups working with the JusticeLA coalition are leading a campaign dubbed “Care First, Jails Last” that advocates replacing jails with affordable, quality housing and mental health resources. Meanwhile, the Re-Imagine L.A. County Coalition has worked to move county revenues away from incarceration and toward community-based initiatives.

The Case of Jalani Lovett

In September 2021, 27-year-old Jalani Lovett became one of the latest victims of the L.A. County jail system. The Oakland native was being held in solitary confinement at Men’s Central while awaiting the start of his prison sentence when he was found unresponsive in his cell. Despite having multiple injuries and deadly levels of fentanyl and heroin in his system, the county coroner ruled his death “accidental” and closed his case shortly thereafter. 

But Lovett’s mother, Terry Lovett, says there’s no good explanation for how her son, held in a single-person cell, could have obtained drugs or sustained injuries so severe that his shoulder was dislocated. She points to the coroner’s report, which indicated that her son had high levels of heroin and fentanyl in his system at the time of his death. “You die at 2 milligrams [of fentanyl],” Lovett says. “How did he get 10 in him?” 

Lovett is convinced that a notorious sheriff’s deputy gang operating inside Men’s Central, known as the “3000 Boys,” is responsible for her son’s death. In a lawsuit against the county and its former sheriff, Alex Villanueva, Lovett’s lawyers claim: “The 3000 Boys hold de facto control over the Men’s Central Jail,” and “instead of protecting and serving, deputies who are part of the 3000 Boys terrorize individuals and operate the deputy gang similarly to a street gang.”

In 2018, Villanueva became the first Democrat in 140 years to be elected sheriff of L.A. County, promising reform to policing and jails. But he proved to be a disappointment to progressive hopes. In 2022, he refused to testify in a probe of abusive deputy gangs, and he vehemently opposed the closure of Men’s Central. Villanueva lost his bid for re-election in 2022 to Robert Luna, who ran on a platform of bringing stability and a spirit of collaboration to the office. Villanueva’s predecessor, Republican Jim McDonnell, had also promised to reform the jail system and end inmate abuse, and likewise failed to do so. Before McDonnell, Lee Baca oversaw the L.A. Sheriff’s Department for half a century, before being convicted of interfering in a federal investigation into inmate abuse. 

It is against this backdrop of corruption and violence that Lovett’s lawsuit alleges nefarious conduct as the reason for her son’s mysterious death. She’s clear about the first step toward real reform: “I think first of all, you need to get rid of the [sheriff’s] deputies,” says Lovett. 

Depopulating Men’s Central Jail

Activists like Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, executive director of Dignity and Power Now, one of the member organizations on JusticeLA’s executive committee, notes a “pattern in which Black and Brown mothers are finding their children dead in the county jails with no answers, with cover-ups.” He believes that beyond holding sheriff’s deputies accountable, jails ought not to exist at all. 

“People who have lost loved ones to brutality and medical abuse and negligence in those jails have actually moved the board of supervisors to close [Men’s Central],” he explains. The Care First, Jails Last campaign he backs is centered on replacing L.A. County jails with facilities that foster both mental health and restorative justice.

Mental health crises are inextricably linked to incarceration and abuse in L.A. County. Built in 1997 as an expansion of Men’s Central Jail is Twin Towers Correctional Facility, which the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department touts as the “nation’s largest mental health facility.” Like Men’s Central, Twin Towers is also notorious for horrific mistreatment of its approximately 3,000 residents. About one-third of all those incarcerated within the L.A. County jail system have received treatment for mental health. “By default, we have become the largest treatment facility in the country. And we’re a jail,” Tim Belavich, director of mental health for the county jail system, told NPR’s Morning Edition. “I would say a jail facility is not the appropriate place to treat someone’s mental illness.” Activists seeking to close the facility echo this sentiment, saying the county is simply locking up people who need mental health resources. 

“People with mental health disabilities [are very likely] to experience the type of brutality and medical abuse and negligence that is costing people their lives,” says Clayton-Johnson. Abolitionists like him say brutality and abuse are only amplified when incarceration and mental health illnesses are combined at the hands of law enforcement. In 2019, JusticeLA beat back a plan to replace Men’s Central with a nearly 4,000-bed facility that activists decried as a “mental health jail.” In September 2022, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors again considered a motion to build what the Sheriff’s Department called “secured mental health care facilities.” 

Again, activists succeeded in thwarting the plan, and instead pushed the board to adopt a motion filed by county supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn on “developing mental health care facilities to help depopulate Men’s Central Jail”—a critical distinction from “secured mental health facilities.” 

These victories signaled crucial, if preliminary, steps toward reducing the harm incarcerated people continue to experience while under the care of L.A. County. 

“There is a map, there is a solution, there is a well-researched, well-substantiated plan … that would improve the well-being of our communities and see less and less jail facilities in Los Angeles County,” says Clayton-Johnson. Part of that plan includes diverting those who struggle with mental health issues into “programs that would get them out of the jail, out of a cell, into the community, into peer-based models with clinicians on-site, and resources on-site, and permanent housing.” 

“We know that that model works,” he adds.

Moving Money Out of Jails

Eunisses Hernandez is a well-known activist who challenged longtime incumbent L.A. City Councilmember Gil Cedillo in June 2022 by running on a platform of abolishing mass incarceration—and won.

The 32-year-old points to the data illustrating that jails are a racial justice issue. “In L.A. County, 50% of the people in the jail system are Latino, 30% … are Black,” she says, adding that “Black community members only make up about 9% of the population.” 

Hernandez was part of the grassroots Re-Imagine L.A. County Coalition, which pushed for the demands of the Care First, Jails Last campaign to be codified into a ballot measure. 

Responding to relentless community pressure, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors convened an Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) work group, which in turn produced an extensive report in spring 2020, built from the consensus of thousands of stakeholders. 

In fall 2020, nearly 60% of L.A. County voters passed Measure J, a ballot measure that came out of the ATI report. Hernandez believes Measure J “was a groundbreaking measure, written and championed by community members and organizers,” and one that “reallocates existing general funds into community investments, alternatives to incarceration, and housing.”

What’s more, Hernandez notes that Measure J “moved 10% of locally generated tax dollars back into community … to make sure that money could go specifically to Black- and minority-owned businesses.” 

Progress Amid Challenges

County supervisor Solis was once a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the nation’s first woman Labor Secretary (under President Barack Obama). Today, she has successfully turned part of JusticeLA’s vision into reality via a newly launched project called The Hilda L. Solis Care First Village project.

Funded through federal CARES Act money, the village, which opened in summer 2021, is a 4-acre housing facility built on the site of what was to be an expanded Men’s Central Jail. The village offers shelter to the unhoused, as well as wraparound services, including mental health care. 

“Investing in an infrastructure rooted in care is necessary to not only reduce the jail population, but to provide resources that interrupt cycles of incarceration,” says Clayton-Johnson. He applauds Supervisor Solis for “driving forward an essential model of what is needed to close Men’s Central Jail; and the promise of this model should be the basis of setting a timeline to do so.”

Construction has now begun on a similar, larger project called the Restorative Justice Village Master Plan, part of what Solis calls a “care first infrastructure,” echoing the language used by grassroots abolition groups. 

Meanwhile, the impacts of Measure J’s passage remain unclear. Although it’s been two years since the ballot measure passed, the reallocation of funds from incarceration into social service has been slow, prompting local journalist Charlotte Slovin to ask, “Why is the current Board of Supervisors, the same one that adopted Measure J, not doing anything?”

Part of the problem is that a lawsuit challenging Measure J’s constitutionality has delayed implementation of the voter-backed measure. But crucially, Hernandez explains, “the county never needed Measure J to reallocate funds—so they renamed this effort Care First Community Investment (CFCI) and continued with implementation.” A plan outlining expenditures for the diverted funds includes money for permanent housing, education, violence prevention, job training, and youth development.

“It’s not perfect,” says Hernandez of the measure she helped to realize. “But it has been successful in moving money to the priorities of community. It takes a while to get here, but this is just the beginning.” 

Although the Los Angeles Times’ Julia Wick and Benjamin Oreskes framed Hernandez’s win as “a testament to the solidifying power of the city’s progressive movement,” it remains to be seen if she can move the city and county to end mass incarceration when she takes her seat on the City Council in December 2022. 

Waiting for Justice

“I will fight until the day I die to get justice for my son,” says Terry Lovett. 

She remembers how, growing up in Oakland, her son was an athlete, winning numerous trophies for basketball and football. “He was a product of the hood,” she says, and he “went to L.A. to pursue his rap career.” She pictures him fighting for his life in his jail cell, wondering if he may have been beaten to death. She imagines him saying, “My momma is going to get y’all.” 

In the meantime, Men’s Central Jail continues to operate—and continues to generate disturbing reports. In September 2022, the Los Angeles Office of the Inspector General reported that inmates in “psychological distress” had been shackled in the inmate reception center at Twin Towers for days at a time while they awaited processing. 

Conditions like those—and the high likelihood of additional fatalities within the jail system—are just a few of the reasons abolitionists like Clayton-Johnson say, “Men’s Central Jail needs to close, and … that is not up for debate.”

First published in YES! Magazine. Included in Vox Populi with permission.

SONALI KOLHATKAR is currently the racial justice editor at YES! Media and a writing fellow with Independent Media Institute. Sonali won First Place at the Los Angeles Press Club Annual Awards for Best Election Commentary in 2016. She also won numerous awards including Best TV Anchor from the LA Press Club and has also been nominated as Best Radio Anchor 4 years in a row. She is the author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, and the co-director of the nonprofit group, Afghan Women’s Mission. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights, 2023).

One comment on “Sonali Kolhatkar: Abolishing the Nation’s Largest Jail System

  1. Barbara Huntington
    December 20, 2022

    Sometimes I read only as much as I can and post for others. This is so wrong


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