Families Demand Action over Los Angeles Jail Death Crisis

Sam McCann Senior Writer
Sep 12, 2023

At least 31 people have died in Los Angeles County jails this year, and community organizers say that number is likely to climb. Because of overcrowding, inadequate services, a failure to invest in alternatives to incarceration, and a culture of impunity among the sheriff’s deputies, the county’s jails are set up to claim life after life. Changing any of those factors, and preventing yet more death, depends on action from the county’s Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s Department.

Today, family members of those who have died are gathering outside the county’s elected Board of Supervisors meeting to demand action to stem the tide of deaths. The families, together with the JusticeLA Coalition (JLA) and its partners, are calling on county leadership to finally close the deadly Men’s Central Jail (MCJ), which it has committed to doing, and to stop relying on incarceration and instead invest in services, like mental health and substance use treatment, which are proven effective. The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to close MCJ in June 2021. At the time, the board estimated it would take 18 to 24 months to close the jail. In the 27 months since then, dozens of people have died in county jails and MCJ continues to operate over capacity. JLA is demanding that the board immediately commit to closing MCJ by March 2025—without a replacement jail—by reducing the existing county jail population from nearly 13,000 people to 8,500.

JLA has a plan to safely reduce the jail population, too. Investing in community-based programs that provide effective mental health and substance use disorder services can build public safety and it costs both fewer dollars and lives. The county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) operates one such program that has a proven track record of success: its community-based supportive housing meets the needs of people who otherwise would have been incarcerated. Since 2015, it has diverted at least 8,500 people from county jails into community support systems. The result? A three-year study found that 86 percent of participants had no new felony convictions after 12 months and 74 percent had stable housing.

Organizers are trying to secure more funding to expand ODR’s services and build on its proven success.

“Today is about where funds need to be reallocated: back into the community through community-based treatment facilities like ODR. That works, and people get a chance to turn their lives around when they’re afforded a real opportunity,” said James Nelson, the campaign and organizing manager with Dignity and Power Now, which is part of JLA. “This isn’t about giving people a second chance; ODR would be giving people their real first chance to get their lives on track and [support] them. Locking them up isn’t supporting them, it’s harming them.”

It’s past time that the LA County Board of Supervisors turn words into action by creating a timeline to close Men’s Central Jail. Add your name if you agree.

Expanding these offerings will go a long way to closing Men’s Central: as many as 61 percent of people with mental health conditions currently held in Los Angeles County jails are good candidates for diversion into existing alternatives to incarceration. That overwhelming percentage makes sense, given that the Los Angeles County jail system is the largest provider of mental health care in the country, and that the criminal legal system has become the principal intervention point for people with mental health needs.

Expanding these offerings can save lives. County officials have been notoriously opaque in reporting jail deaths, failing to provide even the names of those who have died in custody. For that reason, the 31 known deaths are likely an undercount; at least one person, former NFL player Stanley Wilson Jr., died while detained in February but has not been included in the official count.

Organizers hope that today’s action communicates the urgency of these changes to prevent even one more death. In addition to today’s rally, more than 120 people attended a vigil held last night to remember those who have died in MCJ.

“Everything we’ve won, we won because of community. We go to the community when issues come up that are going to harm our communities, and they speak. That’s how [MCJ] got voted to close, because the community spoke and [the Board of Supervisors] heard them,” Nelson said. “The community always speaks about what it needs. Now it’s saying that we need to reallocate money back into the community through programs like ODR. The county needs to look and be brave. Do the right thing: you’ve got an opportunity to do the right thing. What a shame it would be if your term runs out and you didn’t speak up.”