Op-ed: Safety for all means finding alternatives to incarceration
The Santa Clara County Main Jail, located at 150 W Hedding St. in San Jose is pictured. Photo by Katie Lauer.

On March 17, the Silicon Valley Law Foundation submitted a demand letter to the County of Santa Clara chronicling inhumane treatment of those incarcerated in the jails. The letter laid out survey results, personal testimonies and observations from inside which told a horrific story of the jails “failing to provide even minimally adequate procedures to address and protect against COVID-19.”

The letter confirmed what we have seen throughout this pandemic: Jails will never be a place where the rights, dignity and lives of disproportionately Black and brown community members will be protected. This truth was the reality before COVID-19 and was only further exposed due to the lethal nature of the virus.

The findings of the demand letter come as no surprise to us. As family members of those incarcerated in the jails, we support the Law Foundation’s demands as they further document how the lives of those detained and incarcerated in Santa Clara County jails are subjected to inexcusable and unlawful conditions. Our loved ones call home saying, “I want to come home alive. Jail life is already hard, and it is worse now that we are dealing with COVID-19. I pray I survive.”

While the demand letter made painfully clear how the jail failed to respond to COVID-19, it also lays bare a broader truth—jails, regardless of their size or how they are built, will always be harmful institutions for our people.

In the past year, the jail system has neglected those inside with the lack of masks, not providing minimum cleaning and disinfecting practices, poor hygiene and the lack of social distance provisions. These are basic items and procedures required for health and safety by curbing the spread of COVID-19. How can the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, Adult Custody Health System, the Public Health Department and other officials allow for such neglect?

It was done because it is the continuous operating practice that is employed by the jails. Even at the start of the pandemic, it was not a shock to us that the number of people contracting COVID-19 within the county would be disproportionately higher for those who are incarcerated. In addition to contracting the virus, the incarcerated are being affected mentally because things are so bad in the jails. Those with mental issues have increased during the pandemic. Those incarcerated are thinking they will die inside.

These problems will not be fixed by building a new jail and locking up more folks. Given the disregard the jail staff had for adhering to live-saving public health protocols, it would be naïve to think the level of care would dramatically change simply because of a newly built jail. A nicely constructed jail would still have been ill-equipped to prevent those inside from being harmed by the pandemic.

Instead, the problems will be fixed by investing in programs to help those with mental health and substance abuse issues. This includes pretrial justice and preventive diversion options.

The Law Foundation’s list of demands comes at a key crossroads within the county about championing new carceral spaces or coming up with alternatives that truly support and care for the community. Some in county government have been intent on building a new jail to replace the demolished one (known as Main Jail South), but a groundswell of community groups led by families of the incarcerated opposing this construction has forced the county to put these plans on pause.

Initially introduced by former Supervisor David Cortese, the county is starting to introduce a robust “community engagement process” to explore alternatives to incarceration such as mental health treatment, substance abuse support and housing to name a few solution spaces. Families and the larger community have formed the “Alternatives to Incarceration Coalition” to push the county to implement non-carceral solutions such as these.

Opposition to building a new jail is also coming from the inside, from the people whose lives are most impacted by the question of whether the county wants to invest in more incarceration or not. In fact, before the demand letter was submitted, those inside went on a hunger strike for nine days in January to call out the lack of proper treatment. They weren’t and aren’t calling saying they want a nicer facility; they are sacrificing their lives to be treated like human beings.

This pandemic forces a deeper reflection on who we are and want to be as a county. It made the Santa Clara County justice system start doing the right thing. They had no choice but to release some of those detained to avoid further catastrophe as outbreaks occurred. As a result, we actually have the lowest jail population we have seen for decades, and despite the fear-mongering there has been no spike in crime. We are all safer with fewer people locked up and with resources going into community solutions.

A new jail would not address the list of problems and issues noted in the demand letter. The racist and unjust treatment of the detained and incarcerated are problems endemic to incarceration. A true solution would be to divert people away from contact with law enforcement, not to expand the scope of it. Issues of mental health, substance abuse and poverty should not be responded to with criminalization. These issues should be addressed with individualized care that supports proper rehabilitation, services and treatment from professionals who are best equipped to do so.

We cannot solve this problem with the same failed tools that have been tried before. Protecting people incarcerated and our larger communities is an urgent matter. So many of us have been affected and harmed by the pandemic. This demand letter gives us even more of a reason to focus on the possibilities and work toward that vision. Now is the time to build and make our vision a reality.

Cynthia Longs, Leila Ullman and Melissa Valdez are members of Silicon Valley De-Bug and the Santa Clara County Alternatives to Incarceration Coalition.

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