The Irvine Council rejects the controversial expansion of the Musick prison and calls on the county to hold a public forum

Irvine’s decades-long battle against the expansion of the controversial James A. Musick Prison is not over.

Irvine City Council voted Tuesday evening to put pressure on the county regulator to hold a public session on the matter. The board approved a $ 261 million construction contract for the expansion last year.

The point was suggested by Mayor Farrah Khan and Vice Mayor Tammy Kim at the urging of the Stop the Musick Coalition, a group of social justice organizations in Orange County working to stop expansion.

“Unfortunately we have reached a point where we have exhausted any legal resources or legal means to prevent County Orange from enforcing this extension,” Kim said at the meeting. “But I agree that a resolution confirming our strong opposition to this enlargement will demonstrate our values ​​as a city. Additionally, I hope this resolution sends a strong message to the Orange County Regulatory Authority by asking them to hold a public meeting to address the concerns of our residents for whom they were elected. “

The council first discussed the music facility in mid-April after the coalition requested it. The coalition specifically chose to include the city of Irvine based on its history with the facility.

City officials have questioned the prison’s proximity to residential areas, Orange County Great Park, and Portola High School over the years, and have filed four unsuccessful lawsuits on the matter.

At the council meeting in mid-April, the council seemed to conclude that there wasn’t much the city could do since it does not have a land use authority for the prison, which is located on county property surrounded by Irvine and Lake Forest. Alderman Larry Agran, who has served on the town council on a regular basis since the late 1970s, said the town council should work with the county regulators, particularly regulators Don Wagner, who represents Irvine and who was previously mayor of the city.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Agran said he hoped the board would act quickly.

“It would be very unfortunate if the board of directors would just sit on it and not comply with the request by planning a meeting,” said Agran. “So I assume, Mayor, that you and the Vice-Mayor will convey the importance of this issue to both our own supervisors and other supervisors in the strongest possible way, in the hope that this will be on your agenda for weeks, months not postponed. ”

The coalition believes the $ 289 million – excluding operating costs – spent on adding nearly 900 new beds to the Musick facility is unnecessary as the county’s prison population has declined.

The coalition, which includes Transforming Justice Orange County, the ACLU of Southern California and the People’s Budget, also believes that incarceration is not an effective treatment for social ills and that money could be better spent on social programs that deal with the Problem deal with root causes of crime.

Coalition member Chelsea Drake said in a telephone interview that it was also important that the council express its opposition to the Musick expansion in Tuesday’s resolution.

“It was a step in the right direction, we consider it a victory,” said Drake. “It’s definitely not the end, we consider it the beginning. We hope that the city council continues to support our efforts against enlargement. “

Drake said the coalition asked the city to sponsor a separate, independent public forum in Irvine to educate residents about the expansion.

“We want to do something special for the people of Irvine because it’s so tight and a lot of people don’t know about it,” said Drake.

Raising awareness is currently the main focus of the coalition.

“We believe one of the reasons Musick was expanding is because Orange County regulators snuck through it,” said Jacob Reisberg, coalition member and prison conditions advocate for the ACLU in Southern California. “There was no public debate or education about the damage that expansion would do to the community, both financially and morally. We believe the only way to fix this is to have this public education. We call on Irvine City Council to help. ”

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said in mid-April that the average daily prison population had dropped to 3,300. It was 5,200 before the pandemic.

A judge ordered Sheriff Don Barnes to cut the prison population in half due to COVID-19 outbreaks among inmates.

The Musick Prison has been empty for two years.

The OC Sheriff’s Department previously had a controversial contract with the US Immigration and Customs Service for the placement of ICE prisoners in Musick Prison. In 2019, Barnes ended that agreement and the Musick prison facility was emptied.

The department held on at the time the agreement was terminated to accommodate the increasing need for mental health beds in the county’s prisons.

The expansion includes the addition of two new residential structures and 896 new beds, bringing the total number of beds in the Musick facility to approximately 2,200. The expansion will bring the total number of beds in Orange County’s prisons to nearly 7,500, according to statistics from Braun.

Braun said the number of inmates with mental illnesses in prisons has increased across the country. In 2015, Orange County had an average of 1,220 open mental health cases per day, she said. In 2019, that number had increased 54% to 1,886 cases, meaning about two in five inmates needed mental health treatment.

“Musick is not a mental health prison,” Braun said in an email last month. “It is the sheriff’s responsibility to provide the care and custody of detainees who have violated criminal law. The beds in the Musick are designed to accommodate inmates with minor mental health problems if necessary. People with more severe mental health problems are housed in other facilities in the OC prison.

“While inmates are in our care, the sheriff is committed to keeping them safe, providing opportunities to achieve stability and / or sobriety of mental health if necessary, and access to programs that increase the likelihood of a Reduce relapse on discharge. “

Braun said construction of the music facility began in August and is expected to be completed by the end of 2022. The inmates should have moved in by February 2023, she said.

Kim targeted the prison’s mental health component during the council meeting on Tuesday.

“We can’t stay out of this public health crisis,” said Kim.

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