Residents speak out against new Santa Clara County jail
Veronica Amador, a mother of two children with mental health needs, said she opposes building a new jail. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Some Santa Clara County residents overwhelmingly oppose a new jail, calling on the county to shift from punitive practices that criminalize poverty and mental illness.

After numerous reports about inhumane conditions behind bars, Santa Clara County wrestled with the idea of building a new jail. But now officials are looking to the public for alternative solutions.

On Thursday, county officials collected ideas and feedback from more than 70 residents, students, advocates and lawmakers such as Santa Clara County Office of Education Board member Peter Ortiz and Gilroy Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz. Many of them shared how the jail system tore apart their families, while some talked about their own experiences being incarcerated. The session was the last in a series of four led by Haywood Burns Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit.

“Our goal is trying to help the community reimagine how we administer justice that is more humane and produces real public safety,” Manuel La Fontaine, a member of the Burns Institute social justice and well-being team, told San José Spotlight.

Analisa Ruiz, a member of Young Women Freedom Center, said it’s clear that the community doesn’t want another jail—a sentiment that was echoed throughout the event. Many advocates want to see the county focus on preventing people from falling into the criminal justice system.

“Instead we need more mental health services, housing, job security, re-entry services,” Ruiz told San José Spotlight, “People are still being criminalized for doing things they need for survival.”

Veronica Amador, a mother of two children with mental health needs, said building a new jail will only further hurt people of color and those with mental illnesses. It is not a future she wants her kids to grow up into.

“It’s my job as a mom and a community member to support this cause,” Amador said, with her son Liam on her lap.

Roughly half of inmates in the county—and 80% of women inmates—have serious mental illness, according to Haywood Burns Institute.

In 2019, Black people in Santa Clara County were booked into jail 6.5 times more than white people, an increase from 5.5 more times in 2016. Latinx residents were three times more likely to land in jail than their white counterparts, according to county data.

The attendees formed small groups to share ideas about solutions they want to see. They brought up ideas like wellness centers, more counselors in schools, safety nets like universal income—and a noncarceral mental health center. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

The attendees formed small groups to share ideas about solutions they want to see. Participants brought up ideas like wellness centers, more counselors in schools, safety nets like universal income—and a noncarceral mental health center.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors has wobbled on what to do with the vacant lot of land in downtown San Jose where Main South Jail used to stand. The county demolished the facility in summer 2020 with the intention to build a new jail with fewer beds and more services.

In October, then-Supervisor Dave Cortese announced a plan to scrap the construction of the new jail and instead build a mental health facility, with resounding support from advocates and organizers. The county backed off of the plan in February, with officials split on how to proceed. Some supervisors, including Susan Ellenberg, advocated for the county to prioritize mental health needs but Supervisor Joe Simitian thought a new jail was needed.

Residents rally at an Aug. 27 protest calling for the closure of the Santa Clara County Jail, as well as the resignation of Sheriff Laurie Smith. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Ellenberg proposed the community sessions in May to solicit ideas on jail reforms.

“Many came to the conversation with really strong arguments about what they felt is the best way to achieve public safety,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight, “One of the pieces that surprised and impressed me was that we ought to be focusing on much earlier prevention.”

The community outreach efforts also include several surveys and focus groups with those who are in custody at the Main Jail and Elmwood, Deputy County Executive Martha Wapenski told San José Spotlight.

“These engagements are going to be part of the larger discussion on what the board wants to do,” Wapenski said, which could include building a new jail, a new mental health facility or a hybrid of the two.

The Board of Supervisors will consider the public input when it drafts a master plan for the county jail system, Wapenski said. The plan would guide future plans on the Main Jail and Elmwood.

Input from the community sessions will be presented to a county public safety committee in November before going to the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 16.

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

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