UPDATE: Santa Clara County lawmakers approve new jail
Jose Valle, an organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug, speaks at an Aug. 27, 2021 rally to shut down the county jail. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Santa Clara County lawmakers are moving forward with the creation of a new jail, despite hours of testimony from residents and advocates fiercely opposed to the project.

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to construct a 500-inmate maximum security jail and develop a plan for demolishing components of the existing Elmwood Correctional Facility and all of Main Jail North. Supervisors Otto Lee, Joe Simitian and Mike Wasserman voted in favor, while Supervisors Susan Ellenberg and Cindy Chavez voted against.

The board is also asking the county to develop a comprehensive treatment plan and continuum of care model for people impacted by the justice system, and approved recommendations to expand behavioral health treatment outside of jail.

Lee said he appreciated the hundreds of people who raised concerns about building a new jail. He said he wants to address the inhumane conditions in the jails and expand the county’s capacity to divert people from jail and deliver mental health and substance use treatment.

“I have come to the conclusion the solution should not be an either or,” Lee said.

After years of pushing for a new jail, the board hit the brakes on construction in October 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a dramatic decline in the inmate population–dropping from 3,239 to 2,492 currently. Supervisors explored the idea of building a mental health treatment facility, but backed off this idea in early 2021 after County Executive Jeff Smith raised concerns about how long it would take to build, and the county’s obligation under a federal consent decree to improve conditions in the existing jails.

Last November, the Board of Supervisors was poised to vote on recommendations for improving the jail system, but delayed the vote due to alleged flaws in the report and the inclusion of the maximum security proposal, which the board had not requested.

Prioritizing an approach

Wasserman explained the board has been contemplating a new jail since he was elected more than a decade ago. He said building a new jail will not only address poor living conditions and seismic upgrades, but will also be cheaper in the long run because construction can be financed through bond dollars. He said a new jail will also prevent the county from having to send inmates to other counties.

“People sentenced by state judges can be sent to our state of the art, ADA-compliant jail,” Wasserman said. “Where the loved ones of those sentenced can easily visit.”

Opposing supervisors emphasized building a new jail is hard to square with the county’s evolving policies on the criminal justice system.

“If our culture hasn’t changed, there’s no way to design a building that reflects the values of this community—it’s literally not possible to do,” Chavez said. “And I say that as someone who recognizes we do eventually need a new facility. But I don’t think our cultural changes have caught up.”

All of the supervisors voted in favor of a referral from Ellenberg calling for creating non-carceral facilities for inpatient and outpatient care in Santa Clara County and developing plans for community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Ellenberg argued the county hasn’t provided data or research to justify a new jail facility. She also noted that pursuing both options—a new jail and mental health resources—may prove daunting.

“While technically the board may approve multiple actions today, the heavy lifting of getting facilities planned and built is really another thing altogether,” Ellenberg said, noting the county is already straining its behavioral health resources to cover people in and out of the jail system. “I think we’re going to be forced to prioritize an approach.”

‘Another locked facility’

The decision to pursue a new jail will likely disappoint the scores of county residents and advocates who’ve spent months calling for an alternative. Dozens of members from Show up for Racial Justice in the South Bay (SURJ) and Silicon Valley De-Bug asked supervisors to consider the harmful effects incarceration has on the community, and to instead invest in community-based programs.

SURJ member Alexis MacNab said people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses require well-trained and well-compensated people to support them.

“Make sure your focus doesn’t go into another locked facility, but services that will help families,” she said.

About 44% of individuals in the Santa Clara County jail suffer from a serious mental illness, according to a recent report from Silicon Valley De-Bug. According to a recent study, the county has approximately 18 inpatient mental health beds per 100,000 residents, which is below the state average of 21 per 100,000.

According to the local court, anywhere between 50-100 incarcerated people per day are supposed to be released for treatment. But they are kept in jail, sometimes for more than two weeks, due to administrative delays and a lack of immediate access to treatment facilities.

Mental health experts and advocates warned supervisors that the current jail system is feeding a continuing stream of people back into the community with virtually no continuation of treatment.

“I’ve witnessed first-hand the revolving door of people in the mental health system due to the lack of adequate mental health services and facilities,” said Jennifer Hughes, vice president of the Registered Nurses Professional Association. “Jail is the last place to care for this population.”

The board recently passed a resolution declaring Santa Clara County has a mental health and substance use crisis. Supervisors Ellenberg and Lee have asked the county to study how to address systemwide issues and the workforce shortage in the mental health care sector.

Several lawyers from the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley cautioned the board against adopting a new jail, saying it would exacerbate racial inequities, housing instability and trauma, especially in communities of color.

“Mental illness and substance use are public health matters, not criminal,” said Joanna Xing, a staff attorney with the foundation.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. 

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