UPDATE: Santa Clara County supervisors delay jail decision
Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg is pictured in this file photo.

Santa Clara County lawmakers have deferred a decision on management of the jail system following calls to delay from one supervisor.

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg requested the deferral Monday afternoon. She said a report on the jail does not include specific information the board requested about alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness and uses an incomplete survey of inmates. She also expressed concern at the inclusion of a proposed 500-inmate maximum-security facility, which she said no supervisor requested.

“It appears we’re being asked to make decisions on solutions or prescriptions before we’re fully able to consider answers to all of our questions,” Ellenberg told San José Spotlight.

The board will discuss next steps on possible improvements to the county jail on Jan. 11, 2022.

Open to alternatives

Anti-jail advocates have lobbied aggressively against this plan. Over the weekend, members of Silicon Valley De-Bug and Showing Up for Racial Justice at Sacred Heart held a news conference to denounce the proposal. Students Against Mass Incarceration, a collegiate organization, plans to march to the Board of Supervisors chamber to demand a no vote on the new facility.

“Overwhelmingly, the (community) support is for funding alternatives instead of a jail,” Lori Katcher, a member of Sacred Heart, told San José Spotlight.

The board scrapped plans last November for a new jail and instead looked to build a mental health facility. Months later, supervisors backed away from the idea after hearing the mental health center would take years to build—and inmates would be left languishing in crumbling facilities during the interim.

Cynthia Longs, whose son is in jail, spoke at a news conference where members of Showing Up for Racial Justice at Sacred Heart protested a proposal for a new jail facility in Santa Clara County. Photo by Diana Rendler and courtesy of Showing Up for Racial Justice at Sacred Heart.

Cynthia Longs, whose son is currently in jail, told San José Spotlight the county doesn’t need a new place to incarcerate more people.

“If they build it, they will fill it,” she said, adding that she hopes the county will instead invest in preventative treatment to keep mentally ill people out of jail. “Why can’t they be open and accept that something else is needed?”

Multiple activists said it would be hypocritical of the board to approve a new jail. In June 2020, in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, the board approved resolutions supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and declaring racism a public health crisis. The resolutions acknowledged that institutions—including those in the county—are marked by systemic racism and promised to work with communities to pursue racial equity.

“Moving forward with the plan for a new jail would be equivalent to abandoning the resolution the board made last year,” said Dr. Roni Zeiger, a member of Sacred Heart. He added that every year a person spends incarcerated causes them to lose an additional two years of life on average. “We’re fundamentally talking about an intervention that has limited benefit and significant harm.”

A strained system

The report to be considered by the board highlights severe strains on the jail system, specifically the lack of appropriate housing and treatment space for inmates with serious mental illness. Between Aug. 1, 2019 and Aug. 31, 2021, 9,055 patient inmates took psychotropic medication and/or had a severe psychiatric illness. Of those inmates, 5,064 lived in the general jail population.

The report recommends building a 500-bed maximum security facility at the site of the demolished main jail south site that would provide full behavioral health and medical care services.

“I don’t think a maximum security jail is in line with what the community wants,” Jose Valle, a community organizer for Silicon Valley De-Bug, told San José Spotlight.

Santa Clara County’s jail population has declined over the years, and it took a sharp drop during the COVID-19 pandemic as lawmakers tried to avoid outbreaks of infections among inmates. The county has also diverted a significant number of people from jail by placing them under electronic monitoring and other forms of supervision. A state law created in 2018 diverts people with underlying mental health conditions away from jails and prisons into community-based mental health programs provided they meet specific criteria.

As of Oct. 8, 278 people in jail have been sentenced and 2,182 people have not been sentenced.

Other supervisors did not immediately respond to requests for comment or said they were unavailable. Sheriff Laurie Smith, who oversees the jail and is facing criticism for its management, has lashed out against the board for failing to address the large number of mentally ill people who remain in jail while awaiting psychiatric treatment or trial. In an exclusive interview, Smith previously told San José Spotlight she wishes the county would prioritize building a psychiatric hospital over a jail.

She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Board of Supervisors meets Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. Residents can access the agenda and virtual meeting here.

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

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