San Jose residents protest jail plans, call for sheriff to step down
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.

Group chants and black masks: that was the scene Friday outside the Santa Clara County Jail as more than two dozen residents and advocates protested for alternatives and reforms to the current system.

Led by Silicon Valley De-Bug, protesters gathered at the corner of West Hedding Street and North San Pedro Street to amplify a call on the county to abandon plans to build a new jail, chanting slogans such as, “Brand new jail? We say no, incarceration’s got to go!”

A coalition of several community and justice reform groups, called “Care First, Jails Last,” is also calling for Sheriff Laurie Smith to resign over her office’s management of the jail. Smith’s 23-year tenure has been marked by high-profile violent incidents against inmates and costly settlements.

“If we want systemic change, we can’t do it with our current sheriff… and I don’t think we could do it under any sheriff,” Silicon Valley De-Bug organizer Jose Valle told San José Spotlight.

Jose Valle, an organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug, speaks at the rally to shut down the county jail. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Opposition to the county’s plan to build a new jail started years ago after three correctional officers murdered inmate Michael Tyree. The movement began gaining traction last year following the police killing of George Floyd. State Sen. Dave Cortese spearheaded an effort to scrap the construction of the new jail last November, but the county backed off its plan earlier this year, citing the need to improve its crumbling facilities and inhumane living conditions.

Formerly incarcerated residents and their families spoke at the rally, urging the county “to do the right thing.”

“The time for real change is long overdue,” said Tina Brown, whose son went through juvenile hall. “That change should not include the building of a new jail. A new jail will not change what is already occurring in our jail.”

Last week, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved requesting investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice, the state attorney general and the county civil grand jury into management of the jail. Smith is also facing a proposed no-confidence vote by supervisors on Tuesday.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo also called for Smith’s resignation last week, causing the sheriff to push back on claims that her office squandered hundreds of millions of dollars by unsuccessfully trying to improve jail conditions.

Sheriff spokesperson Russel Davis told San José Spotlight that everyone has the right to peacefully protest.

“We hope that they do that in a safe manner,” he said.

Following the rally, attendees marched to a county-sponsored community meeting on jail reform at the county’s Re-entry Center hosted by Oakland-based nonprofit W. Haywood Burns Institute.

Residents participated in the outdoor meeting alongside officials including Supervisor Susan Ellenberg and San Jose council candidate Peter Ortiz. Ellenberg said she attended to listen to residents.

Participants sat in small groups and answered questions about community safety and alternatives to incarceration.

“Where we’re looking in terms of justice transformation is moving beyond just tweaking the tools and technologies of our current system, which is rooted in structural racism,” facilitator Joanna Lowry said. “And reimagining, thinking about different ways of addressing one another within the community.”

According to Lowry, disparities in jail bookings in Santa Clara County grew between 2016 and 2019, with Black and Latinx residents disproportionately impacted. Black residents accounted for 3% of the county’s population in 2019, but made up 11% of the jail population.

The session is part of the county’s outreach efforts on plans for the new jail. Feedback will be given to the Board of Supervisors for consideration, Lowry said.

The county will host another community engagement session next month, according to organizers.

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

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