Coalition pushes for alternatives to new Santa Clara County jail
SURJ activists act out a skit on Jan. 20 about a flip flopping politician who avoids addressing issues like wage theft and the jails. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

In a final push to oppose plans for a new Santa Clara County jail, local residents and advocates are using a new avenue to shame elected officials for wobbling on important issues—a comedy skit.

Led by Race Equity and Community Safety (RECS) and Show up for Racial Justice in the South Bay (SURJ), about 30 people gathered in front of Santa Clara County headquarters at 70 W. Hedding St. Thursday to amplify a years-long campaign urging the county to abandon plans for a new jail and to shift from punitive practices that criminalize communities of color, poverty and mental illness. Members acted out a skit where a politician flip flops when asked about issues such as wage theft and the county jails.

San Jose resident Brian Larson, who played the character of a resident, said the skit is a parody on current politics in Santa Clara County.

“We just want people to come and learn about the issue,” he told San José Spotlight.

The street performance is part of a campaign to pressure elected officials to respond to calls for no new jails, SURJ organizer Lori Katcher said. The group and its supporters spent Wednesday tweeting at county supervisors with messages calling for alternatives to incarceration. According to county data, Black residents were booked into jail 6.5 times more than white residents in 2019. Latino residents were three times more likely to land in jail than their white counterparts.

“We truly believe that in order to see true public safety for all people in Santa Clara County, the Board of Supervisors needs to vote to stop a new jail and to invest in (addressing) the root causes of incarceration,” Katcher told San José Spotlight.

In late 2020, the Board of Supervisors approved a proposal to scrap construction of a new jail, but backed off the plan just a few months later. Some supervisors worried a mental health center would take years to build while inmates live in crumbling facilities.

The county then spent months hearing opinions and concerns from the public—during which many spoke against a new jail. In November, Supervisor Susan Ellenberg requested a delay on hearing recommendations, citing concerns about incomplete surveys and reports. Things were delayed further earlier this month.

Members of the Care First, Jail Last coalition have aggressively lobbied against the county’s proposal to build a new jail. Activists said they want to see more mental health services, diversion and transitional programs over a new jail. The efforts started years ago, but tensions escalated in 2015 after three correctional officers murdered inmate Michael Tyree, who had a mental health disorder.

“It seems like some elected officials are either willfully ignoring it, or they are not paying attention to the cries of the community,” Derrick Sanderlin, a community organizer leading the Thursday rally, told San José Spotlight. “This is us trying to call attention to the real proposals that have been put forward by so many people who are impacted by the system.”

Sanderlin, who trained San Jose police in rooting out bias and building ties with the community, said he was disappointed to see the county dismiss the community’s desire to reimagine public safety in the delayed November report. The report included proposals like a new maximum-security facility for up to 500 inmates. It also called for a comprehensive treatment plan for people involved in the criminal justice system and alternatives to incarceration.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hear jail recommendations early next week.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

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