Squeeze at L.A. Jail Gets Even Tighter


THE Los Angeles County Central Jail, the most populous penal institution in the Western world, represents a microcosm of problems the nation faces in waging a war on drugs. The concrete structure on the edge of downtown Los Angeles is so crowded that some inmates sleep in recreation rooms and others in cellblock hallways.

The county wants to expand the 7,000-plus inmate facility to ease overcrowding, much of it the result of increased drug arrests. But area residents don't want more prisoners in their backyards, and the city doesn't want them, either.

Where will they go?

President Bush's new antidrug plan calls for $1.47 billion to be spent on federal prisons in fiscal 1990. Prison authorities consider that amount inadequate to handle current overcrowding at federal penitentiaries, much less any surge from more drug arrests.

The state and local situation may be worse. Although the Bush plan would more than double law-enforcement grants to state and local governments in 1990, that number is still only $350 million - and must pay for variety of local needs, not just prisons.

Even though states and counties are carrying out one of the largest prison building programs in history, officials say far more is needed to accommodate the growing population behind bars.

``Prisons could be a major choke point in the whole [antidrug] plan,'' says Anthony Travisono, who heads the American Correctional Association. ``There just isn't any room at the inn.''

Los Angeles offers a glimpse - albeit an exaggerated one - of the colliding forces at work in the expanding crackdown on drugs.

The county currently has more than 22,000 people locked up in its eight-jail system. That is more inmates than in the prison systems of 46 states. The transportation system used to move prisoners - 68 buses - is larger than the transit fleets of many US cities.

The statistic that may mean the most to local authorities, however, is this one: 22,000 inmates is almost double the 13,500 people the jail system was built to hold.

Richard Foreman, assistant sheriff of Los Angeles County, says flatly: ``We're overcrowded. We've been overcrowded. We're going to be overcrowded.''

The county is in the midst of a $700 million expansion program that is to include two new jails in outlying parts of the county, as well as the expansion of the Men's Central Jail. But even if all this comes about - and there is no guarantee the Central Jail add-on will get built - the county would still be short of beds.

A rising population, gang problems, and narcotics trafficking are the main reasons for the growing prison ranks. Sheriff's deputies estimate that 70 to 80 percent of the county's inmates are held on drug-related charges.

Men's Central Jail is the fulcrum of the system. Built to hold 5,300 inmates, its population now hovers between 7,000 and 7,500 - more than a court-ordered cap of 6,800, but less than the 10,000 that were there a few years ago. Back then, prisoners slept on the oak pews in the prison chapels.

Today a few inmates sleep on mattresses on the floor and some on bunks in cell corridors. On a recent tour, Sheriff's Deputy Gordon Stephens stopped along the ``3,000 floor'' and looked in on what is usually a lounge area where inmates watch TV and make phone calls. The room had been taken over by bunk beds.

``There's never a shortage of inmates,'' he said, peering at the prisoners in blue jail smocks. ``If we were a business, we'd be rich.''

Central Jail, in fact, could almost be mistaken for a business on the outside, except for the absence of windows. On the inside, the five-level building is a small city: barbershop, cafeterias, 530-bed hospital, library, small school, and banks of escalators.

To keep the population near the court-imposed limit, the Sheriff's Department has released 172,000 people since May of 1988. Some were inmates serving time who were let out early. Others were charged with crimes, but not held while waiting trial. Most involved minor offenses. But police say without more jail space, those awaiting trial on more serious offenses will be let out.

The expansion proposal would add 2,400 beds to the facility near Chinatown. Two towers, seven and eight stories tall, would be built along with an inmate reception center and medical wing.

County officials say adding on to the facility is the most economical and rational thing to do: Most inmates in Central Jail are awaiting trial, not serving time, and the facility is close to downtown courts. But residents, mainly Hispanic and Asian, say the neighborhood is already saturated with federal, county, and local prisons.

``We have six jails in the area that house two-thirds of the county's adult inmate population,'' says Sharon Lowe, representing a local Latino/Asian group. ``I think we have more than our fair share.''

The city council apparently agrees. It recently voted to try to block the county's move. Court papers are expected to be filed this week. Neighborhood groups may file a suit of their own.

However the saga of Central Jail turns out, even law enforcement officials admit the county cannot just build its way out of the prison problem. It will require alternative sentencing, speedier courts - and stopping the drug problem at its source.

``There is no silver bullet,'' says Robert Mimura, executive director of the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee. ``But in the long run, we are going to need more prevention and education.''

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