Santa Clara County wobbles on replacing new jail with mental health center
The Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose. Photo courtesy of Google maps.

Santa Clara County appears to be backing off a pledge to ditch plans to build a new jail for a mental health center, citing the need to improve its crumbling jail and inhumane conditions faced by inmates.

Supervisors unanimously accepted a report in January from County Executive Jeff Smith and Deputy Executive Martha Wapenski that did not eliminate the possibility of building a new jail in Santa Clara County. Smith said delaying plans to build a new jail would be unconscionable.

“It borders on deliberate indifference,” he said.

That revelation is a stark difference from what county supervisors said in November when they unanimously voted to halt the process of building a new jail. Instead, they decided at the time, the county should explore building a mental health center.

But building a mental health center instead of a jail would take years of planning, Smith said, while more than 2,000 inmates are still living in the county’s failing facilities at Main Jail North and Elmwood Correctional Facility. This would “condemn” current inmates to deplorable living conditions, he said.

Smith added a new behavioral health facility isn’t the solution for everyone, citing previous experience in Contra Costa County, where he oversaw the county’s jail and juvenile hall health facilities.

“Having practiced medicine at one of these (mental health) facilities, I can tell you it’s not a pleasant place to be,” Smith said. “And it’s certainly not an appropriate place for most of the inmates that we house right now.”

Facing this new opposition from the county’s top executive, supervisors now are split on how to move forward.

“The proposed work plan (from the county executive) is not aligned with the board’s prior direction regarding construction of a new jail and exploration of other alternatives,” said Supervisor Susan Ellenberg.

But some lawmakers have changed their minds and now say the county needs a new jail — regardless of other mental health facilities it builds.

“I feel pretty sure that two years, five years and 10 years from now, we’re going to need a jail,” said Supervisor Joe Simitian at a January meeting. Simitian acknowledged some inmates need a place for mental health treatment that is “humane and effective.”

Ellenberg told San José Spotlight she’s open to ideas, too, but she’s heard a resounding call from residents and criminal justice reform advocates to reimagine the proposed jail.

“I have heard numerous times from community advocates and partner (organizations) and families that we serve,” Ellenberg said. “(They say) the new jail, as it was initially conceived, may no longer be appropriate to serve the needs of the community.”

Supervisors in November directed county officials to look at Los Angeles County’s decision to stop jail construction in favor of a mental health hospital for inmates, and determine if Santa Clara County had enough mental health workers to run a similar facility.

But Santa Clara County faces another obstacle — a 2018 court settlement after the county faced allegations of overusing solitary confinement and inadequate medical care at its jails. The settlement bound the county to make improvements to living conditions for inmates.

It’s unclear why county leaders opted to scrap plans to build a new jail, despite the legal obligations from the settlement.

The County Counsel’s Office told San José Spotlight that its office and plaintiffs’ attorneys are in frequent communication and that “the consent decrees and remedial plans remain unchanged, and their implementation is ongoing.”

Advocates criticized the county’s reversal on the issue.

“The (Jan. 26) report does not include the data supervisors requested…” said Leslie Zieger, a volunteer with Sacred Heart’s racial justice advocacy group. “Instead, it presents a jail by another name. There are still no answers to the questions about how many people in the jails are experiencing mental illness and what services they need.”

Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who had previously been vocal about jail alternatives, said she’s open to ideas from her colleagues, including building two separate facilities or a new jail with a mental health unit inside.

Chavez served on the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission to improve custody conditions after the 2016 murder of Michael Tyree, an inmate with mental health issues, in a county jail.

“(There is) a very sincere openness from the board for what is the best way to address public safety,” Chavez said. “That really is what we’re talking about — public safety — doing it in a way that’s humane and really addresses recidivism.”

Supervisor Mike Wasserman suggested building a new jail while using the Elmwood facility as a mental health rehabilitation center.

Last year, then-Supervisor Dave Cortese was a driving force against building a new jail. Cortese now serves as a state senator in District 15, which includes most of Santa Clara County.

Cortese’s successor, Supervisor Otto Lee, tried to walk the line between his colleagues.

“Maybe at the end of the day we are building two things,” Lee said.

But county administrators reiterated the deplorable conditions at the current jail need to be addressed first.

“I don’t think anybody ever thought that Elmwood (Correctional Complex) and Main Jail North were going to continue as they are forever,” Smith said. “As a matter of fact, if I could blow them up today, I would.”

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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