Inmates in a dorm at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles, CA Wednesday, July 18, 2012.(Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)
Inmates in a dorm at Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles, CA Wednesday, July 18, 2012.(Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer) (ANDY HOLZMAN/LA DAILY NEWS)

Once-crowded cells now sit empty inside Men's Central Jail, as Sheriff Lee Baca clears out the places where deputies have been accused of beating inmates.

He wants the most violence-plagued modules, which contain about 1,000 beds, shut down before the end of the year.

The closure, however, may not be permanent, given that the population in the Los Angeles County jail system is already at about 90 percent of capacity, and still growing.

"It's not like we're shutting down, never to refill again," Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo said.

In October, state realignment forced counties to detain thousands of men and women who otherwise would have gone to state prison. So far, it has helped push the local jail population to more than 18,000 inmates.

Inmates at LA County Jail North facility.
Inmates at LA County Jail North facility. (David Crane / Staff Photographer)
The population was nearly 15,000 inmates this time last year.

The Sheriff's Department has about 22,000 beds in its eight detention facilities, but tries to use only 20,000 of them, keeping the rest vacant in case inmates need to be separated or for maintenance.

Rhambo said realignment has brought in 6,835 inmates - dubbed N3's because they have non-serious, nonviolent and non-sex related convictions - who have to serve 50 percent of their sentences, which are usually less than a year long.

To date, 4,800 N3's remain in custody.

The risk of overcrowding is more acute for women.

Rhambo said almost every bed at the jail set aside for women - Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, with a capacity of 2,400 inmates - would be full now if space had not been found for some women at the Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles.

To manage the inmate population without building additional jails - the county Board of Supervisors had balked at the billion-dollar price tag - the department is negotiating with four publicly owned, maintained and supervised jails near Bakersfield, as well as with state-run fire camps where low-risk inmates can help fight wildfires to shorten their sentences.

The plan drew opposition from Californians United for a Responsible Budget, which advocates curbing spending on jails and prisons.

Its statewide coordinator, Emily Harris, said sending inmates to so-called community correctional facilities in Taft, Shafter, Delano and Coalinga, which are 100 to 200 miles from downtown Los Angeles, would be expensive for taxpayers without doing anything to help inmates become productive members of society.

"If we lock people up in Kern County and Fresno County, we're going to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just to transport people back and forth," she said. "Also, we're going to be keeping them away from their families, and having strong ties to family helps prevent recidivism.

Ernie Carrasco makes his way by a row of empty cells at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles on Wednesday, July 18, 2012.
Ernie Carrasco makes his way by a row of empty cells at Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles on Wednesday, July 18, 2012. (Andy Holzman / Staff Photographer)
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Harris said the plan thwarts the purpose of realignment, which is "to bring people closer to the community and provide support such as affordable housing, bus passes and drug treatment through community-based organizations, so they can hold down a job and feed their families."

But Rhambo said the department is already poised to present the Board of Supervisors a proposed contract with Taft within weeks. If approved, about 260 inmates, many of them serving long sentences, would be transferred there by August.

He added it costs $72-$112 a day to house an inmate in Los Angeles, but only about $60 a day at Taft, Shafter, Delano and Coalinga. At fire camps, it's about $73 a day.

If all the beds at the community correctional facilities and fire camps became available, that would still account for only 2,500 inmates.

Rhambo said the department is considering alternatives to incarceration, such as expanding the use of electronic monitoring devices like ankle bracelets, particularly for women inmates.

It would cost only $10-$15 a day to monitor someone with an ankle bracelet.

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, believes the department can significantly reduce its jail population by using ankle bracelets for nonviolent pre-trial inmates.

"Public safety does not require as many inmates as are in the system right now," Eliasberg said. "With appropriate risk management, certainly pre-trial release shouldn't turn solely on whether you have enough money to post bail."

In April, corrections expert James Austin released a report showing the entire Men's Central Jail, which can hold up to 5,200 inmates, could be closed by 2013 if the department would release 3,000 nonviolent pre-trial and sentenced inmates into community-based supervision and education programs, and repurpose existing facilities to add 2,000 beds.

Baca has not embraced all the recommendations of the study, but Rhambo said the department is considering the idea of "bifurcated sentences," where an inmate who undergoes rehabilitative programs in jail can have the latter end of his or her sentence replaced by a requirement to participate in additional rehabilitative programs in the community, while wearing an ankle bracelet.

This would apply only to inmates who have yet to be sentenced, not those already in jail.

At Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky will ask the department to report on various options to thin out the jail population.

"There will never be sufficient jail space to fulfill the burden that the state has placed upon Los Angeles County," Yaroslavsky's motion read. "It is essential that our county begin to explore prudent, innovative and carefully thought out alternatives to incarceration that can be crafted in a manner that insures public safety."

Rhambo said the jail population has been increasing slowly, not rapidly, because the department releases about 2,000 people per week.

"We haven't reached critical mass yet," he said. "But it's going to get there the longer we drag on the process of getting more beds and other alternatives."

As a last resort, Rhambo said, the department may consider further shortening the jail terms of misdemeanor offenders.

Currently, they serve only 20 percent of their sentences. Rhambo said that may have to be cut back to 15 percent, if necessary.

"I don't know if I would describe it as a serious possibility," he said. "I would say that all options are on the table, depending on the population of the jails."