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County votes to cancel $1.7B contract to replace Men’s Central Jail

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The contract “does not fit this board’s vision of a care-first model”

A row of pay phones front a concrete jail wrapped in chain link fencing at sunset.
Men’s Central Jail in Downtown Los Angeles.
Photo by FG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

The county’s plan to replace the Men’s Central Jail in Downtown LA is back to square one.

In a 4-1 vote, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed today to cancel a $1.7 billion design and build contract with McCarthy Builders that it had approved in February.

“The contract with McCarthy Builders for a custody facility does not fit this board’s vision of a care-first model,” said Supervisor Hilda Solis.

The board chambers erupted in applause. Dozens of the more than 200 county residents and criminal justice reform advocates who spoke at the meeting had remained in the board room to hear the vote after more than three hours of public comment.

Mike Simon, deputy county counsel at the Office of the County Counsel, told the board that the existing contract did not accommodate “the current direction” the board is going with its plans for replacing the jail.

The contract dictates a design that’s very different from what the board has advocated for, Simon said. Trying to make the contract work, he said, would be like “trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”

The board voted in February to build a mental health treatment facility—not a new jail. At the time, it was unclear exactly how a treatment facility would differ from a jail.

“A jail is a jail is a jail,” Solis said in a statement immediately following the February vote. “It is not enough to change the name of the facility.”

Along with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, she authored today’s motion to end the contract.

But Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who cast today’s lone “no” vote, said she was concerned that cancelling the contract would delay replacing the Men’s Central Jail, a dangerously overcrowded and out-of-date facility near Union Station.

Barger asked Simon, of County Counsel, to estimate how long it would take for the jail replacement project to go through the environmental review process and come before the board again.

Simon said it would likely take about three or four years.

“We know that we are putting not only inmates’ lives at risk, but sheriffs’ lives at risk, and custodies’ lives at risk every day that we allow Men’s Central Jail to continue to be open,” Barger said. “So I won’t support scrapping it until we know that we have the capacity” to make up for the beds that will be lost by demolishing the jail.

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told the board he didn’t support cancelling the contract or the diversion-based alternatives the board was considering.

The supervisors also voted 4-1 to explore ways to reinvest the money that was earmarked for the jail replacement in smaller care facilities run by county health staffers. That could include building new facilities or using existing beds in treatment centers and hospitals around the county.

That model, which would put services within communities instead of one huge facility in Downtown, drew wide support from activists.

“If we really want something effective and holistic that will address the issues like we want them to, we need to decentralize” the services and the facilities, said Kent Mendoza of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. “We’re not against building anything. We’re for building something... something that will really work.”

Kuehl thanked the activists who had consistently pushed for changes to the jail replacement plan.

“We’re at a confluence that rarely happens, where an idea whose time has come is meeting leadership that agrees,” Kuehl said.