Patrisse Cullors, Reform LA Jails Lead the Charge to Decriminalize Mental Health with #CancelMcCarthyContract Campaign

Screenshot: PublicTheaterNY (YouTube)

For years, activist and community organizer Patrisse Cullors has poured her passion for the people into cofounding movements and coalitions such as Black Lives Matter and Reform LA Jails. But with the announcement of her #CancelMcCarthyContract campaign comes one of her biggest challenges yet—the fight for the mental health and wellbeing of incarcerated individuals.

As Cullors told The Root, “We don’t jail cancer patients. We don’t jail HIV patients. So why are we jailing people with mental illness?”

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Last year, Los Angeles County unveiled a $2.2 billion plan to replace the overcrowded catastrophe known as Men’s Central jail with an updated facility, courtesy of McCarthy Building Companies, designed to provide treatment and rehabilitation options for its medically and mentally ill occupants. And in June, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to cut McCarthy a $30 million check to begin construction.

“The county has an opportunity—in fact, a responsibility—to replace the unacceptable Men’s Central Jail with a facility that directly addresses the health and life-skill needs of our inmate-patients, placing them more quickly on a pathway to recovery and reentry,” Supervisor and Board Chair Sheila Kuehl told the LA Times in a statement.

But believing the expansion to be both dangerous and unnecessary—as evidenced by the $820 million debacle McCarthy built in Stockton, Calif.—Cullors ain’t going for it.

“[McCarthy] is a construction company that [...] constructs a lot of different things. But they’ve constructed four jails over the last several years and one of the last jails constructed in Stockton [...] has been an absolute disaster for the community,” she told The Root. “We are lobbying for people to understand that we don’t want a construction company that is building jails. Especially jails that are supposed to be health-based. We don’t believe anyone can get well in a cell.”

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As such, in an effort to protest the use of jails as a substitute for more impactful, preventive measures, Cullors launched her #CancelMcCarthyContract campaign and thus far has collected over 246,000 signatures. Her end goal? “To put an initiative on the ballot on March 3, 2020 to Reform LA County Jails,” according to the petition’s website.

“It will be the initiative that actually moves the largest amount of money out of correction and into mental health,” Cullors told The Root. “It will provide the current civilian oversight body subpoena power over the sheriff’s department and it will also give that body investigative power.”

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Of additional note, should LA County cancel McCarthy’s contract, it will provide a blueprint for the rest of the country to follow in the ongoing fight for prison reform—a fight that Cullors and Reform LA Jails just racked up a major win with the announcement that investigations into “secret societies” within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department will be strengthened.

“It’s a no brainer that people with mental illness shouldn’t be in jail in Los Angeles County,” Cullors told The Root. “The CEO of Los Angeles County, Sachi Hamai, and the CEO of McCarthy Building Company, Michael Bolen, should cancel the contract.”

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About the author

Jay Connor

Menace to supremacy. Founder of Extraordinary Ideas and co-host and producer of The Extraordinary Negroes podcast. Impatiently waiting for ya'll to stop putting sugar in grits.