Santa Clara County called out for jail project
Santa Clara County Main Jail. Photo by Newsha Naderzad.

    As Santa Clara County remains undecided on whether to push forward with a controversial new jail, residents continue to demand local leaders ditch the project.

    More than 20 callers asked the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to redirect $747 million currently earmarked for a new jail project toward the county’s understaffed and underfunded mental health facilities that for years have been incapable of meeting the needs of local residents with mental illness.

    Demands to scrap the new jail follow years of outrage surrounding conditions in the county’s jails and the gradual deterioration of mental health infrastructure. The dual controversies culminated in several high-profile incidents at the jail, including the death of Michael Tyree while in county custody and a string of serious injuries.

    “These conditions will still exist in a new jail, as it is the culture that is the issue, not the concrete,” said Tina Brown, an organizer with criminal justice advocacy group Silicon Valley De-Bug.

    The incidents at county jail facilities sparked the first of a series of investigations into embattled Sheriff Laurie Smith. The jail has already seen multiple delays after pushback from local advocates. The county recently went back to the drawing board to overhaul plans.

    The new jail, labeled as a “secure treatment facility” in county documents, has frustrated residents from the start. Even Supervisor Susan Ellenberg seemed frustrated at the lack of transparency in the county’s spending priorities, right down to the confusing name of the project.

    “Again, I’m going to request that we stop referring to the jail as a secure treatment facility,” Ellenberg said. “We’re going to actually be doing secure treatment facilities, and we need to stop that.”

    Several callers asked the supervisors why the county doesn’t renovate the current jail instead of building a new one. Others wondered why the projected cost of the jail, budgeted at $689 million in previous estimates, had suddenly increased by nearly $60 million without explanation.

    De-Bug spokesperson Jose Valle said the jail is the wrong answer to how to deal with residents living with mental health issues.

    “For folks with severe mental illness, they need to not be booked and arrested in the first place,” Valle told San José Spotlight. “There has to be a new system to get the folks the mental health care they need.”

    Mental health care improvements on the horizon

    Santa Clara County continues to suffer from a shortage of mental health beds and detox services. Several new contracts expanding mental health services could help.

    At the board meeting, representatives of the county’s Behavioral Health Services unveiled plans to roll out new beds for several mental care facilities. These announcements come as officials say the county’s mental health care system is fundamentally broken, and mental health service agencies across the state struggle to meet demand for services.

    These new projects are part of several initiatives to improve mental health care services across the county after supervisors declared a mental health emergency at the start of the year.

    “We call this an emerging crisis in our community,” Supervisor Otto Lee said, adding the county needs to be better prepared to provide mental health services, like preparing for natural disasters.“We need to have that type of mindset.”

    Among the plans to expand mental health services are a batch of new beds coming soon to local health care organizations. Crestwood San Jose, a private county contractor, plans to roll out an additional 20 beds by Nov. 15 at locked rehab and skilled nursing facilities that provide intensive, long-term treatment—part of its contract to add a total of 45 beds by July 2023.

    A residential treatment facility at 650 S. Bascom Ave. is under construction, the county announced, and the facility is scheduled to to start treating new residents in April.

    Despite these updates, supervisors grilled behavioral health representatives, requesting the agency provide more information about would-be patients facing long wait times to get into detox centers that help patients recover from substance addictions while beds at these facilities go unused.

    “I am very shocked, personally, that when I visited the site that half of the residential detox beds were empty,” Lee said. “I was told this was because of a staffing shortage.”

    Staffing shortages have hit hospitals and health care centers across the county, leaving patients without essential services.

    After Lee’s comments, a county representative laid out several initiatives to attract new clinicians to mental health care programs, including raising wages to $18 per hour for interns and streamlining the process of hiring interns as clinicians after they’ve earned their certifications.

    Lee and other supervisors asked county workers to provide more information on these issues by November.

    Contact Brian Howey at [email protected] or @SteelandBallast on Twitter.

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