UPDATE: Santa Clara County to overhaul plans for new jail
Residents rally at an Aug. 27, 2021 protest calling for the closure of the Santa Clara County Jail, as well as the resignation of Sheriff Laurie Smith. File photo.

After more than a decade of planning, Santa Clara County is poised to go back to the drawing board to redesign its new jail, while criminal justice advocates call to abandon the plan altogether.

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-1-1 Tuesday to pump the brakes on a plan to construct a new $689 million jail, with officials saying the six-year-old design is outdated. Supervisors also agreed to work on a list of projects to prioritize in September before they consider hiring a consultant to redesign the jail. Supervisors Otto Lee, Susan Ellenberg and Cindy Chavez voted yes and Supervisor Mike Wasserman voted no. Supervisor Joe Simitian abstained from voting and said the proposed plan was too vague.

The county needs to build a new jail as soon as possible, Wasserman said, citing the rundown conditions at current facilities.

“I’m troubled by the prospect of more delays, (because) this jail project is now in its 14th year of planning,” Wasserman said, adding he worries about rising costs.

Santa Clara County has wobbled on its plan to build a new jail for years. After years of pushing for construction of a new jail near downtown San Jose, elected officials unanimously voted in 2020 to build a mental health facility instead. The plan was scrapped in 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.

Supervisors voted earlier this year to build a new jail, with Lee, Simitian and Wasserman voting in favor, and Ellenberg and Chavez voting against. They also approved building a standalone mental health facility, with little details so far.

In June, county officials proposed a $523.8 million no bid contract with Kansas-based builder J.E. Dunn to construct the new jail. The contract was pulled off the agenda at the last minute after activists questioned the company’s alleged labor violations.

Redesigning the jail 

The new plan, which will allow the county to redevelop programs, services and redesign the new jail, comes as county officials said the already approved design created in 2016 needs updates. The jail needs to change the way inmates are housed and look at how to address mental health needs, officials said.

“There’s been a lot of change (since 2016), and a lot of technology and desire to change the services that will be available in the new jail,” Smith said.

The new design will also take into account the smaller jail population due to pandemic-related early release and those under pretrial supervision. The plan will collect community feedback on the new design. It’s not immediately clear how much it would cost Santa Clara County to redesign the jail and how many more years it would add to the project.

Lee, who was the swing vote when the board voted to build a new jail earlier this year, said the county jail needs a new design that would prioritize mental health and medical services and be complementary to the standalone mental health facility.

“We are looking for something that is going to be truly innovative,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “We don’t want another Main Jail North, which was built more than 40 years ago.”

Walter Wilson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Minority Business Consortium and state NAACP executive committee member, applauded the county’s direction to redesign the jail.

“The wisdom and leadership to move this thing in a different direction will give us the opportunity to see that the leadership in this county is actually listening to what people have to say,” Wilson said.

Leslie Zeiger, an organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice @ Sacred Heart, said she hopes the county will prioritize the standalone mental health facility instead of the jail project.

“We were glad that Dr. Smith is finally proposing an open and competitive bidding process,” Zeiger told San José Spotlight. “We do hope they will scrap the plans for the jail and they will address the real solutions that would provide real safety to people of our county.”

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

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