LA County To Spend $100 Million To Improve Jail Conditions

Terri McDonald has spent her adult life behind bars, but in the good way. She was with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for 25 years, helping to run the prison system.

Now, for the past two years, she's the Assistant Sheriff in charge of custody for the LA County Sheriff's Department. She runs the nation's largest local jail system, with more than 17,000 inmates in 7 facilities. I spent some time with her today, at the Sheriff's Department invitation, to go into the Twin Towers jail in Downtown Los Angeles so she could show me and some of my media colleagues what the Department plans to spend a lot of our tax dollars on inside their lockups.

Basically it's about 100 million dollars out of a roughly 2 billion dollar budget for what McDonald summed up as ''more people to take care of people.'' She wants about 450 more staffers, more training, better equipment, more cameras, and more money for pilot programs particularly for the mentally ill who make up about 20 % of the total jail population, everyone from the severely mentally ill held by court order in a hospital type setting to those in the ''high observation unit '' naked in their cells or chained to tables in pod like areas or repeatedly slamming their foot into their doors to make noise, to those in the general population who just take some medication.

One pilot program she showed us, to be honest, didn't look like much but it represented a lot. Inmates were taken out of their cells and brought to a different area where they were put in what amounted to wire mesh cages, or ''individual exercise modules'' for what is technically considered recreation, but I didn't see anyone recreating. Overall, McDonald says the challenges of what amounts to running what is now also the nation's largest mental health facility are almost overwhelming.

When I asks her what the answer is to making it all work better, she said "To try to divert as many people as you can, build a correctional treatment center designed for treatment that's staffed with quality people who understand our requirement to provide humane and constitutional jailing for the mentally ill." Sounds good, but any new facilities would be another billion or more of tax money that no one has, and would be years down the road. Meantime the jails cycle 'regular' inmates as well the mentally ill in and out, with the latter category, as Fox 11 has reported on earlier this year, having an incredibly high recidivism rate of 70 % and a lot of programs that offer help that few are taking advantage of . Not a pretty picture, but it's the day to day reality.

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