Zisser: Ignorance and arrogance prevail in vote to build jail
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

The vote by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors last week to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into jail construction elicited collective head-scratching and gasps from the hundreds of community members who showed up to advocate for a different path.

“What the heck just happened?” people asked one another.

The folly

After all, the sheriff faces formal accusations of corruption. The California Department of Justice just announced a civil rights investigation of the jail, per the request of the Board of Supervisors, which also voted no confidence in the sheriff.

The 2016 recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on the jail still have not been fully implemented. There are two separate federal civil rights consent decrees on the jail. The independent oversight agency the Board of Supervisors created is in an ongoing battle with the sheriff for access to records so it can do its job. Supervisor Joe Simitian spearheaded the creation of that new agency, and Supervisor Otto Lee sat on the Blue Ribbon Commission that recommended the creation of an oversight entity.

Yet, shamefully, both supervisors voted last month to hand over a brand-new facility to this sheriff—though she faces opposition should she choose to run for reelection. Sure, let’s trust her with creating a new culture of compassion and respect for human rights. Those values have to exist in the first place in order to capitalize on the potential a modern building provides. Otherwise it’s just a waste of taxpayer money and further perpetuates our social commitment to mass incarceration.

The outcry

Supervisors voted to double down on the carceral culture despite vehement public opposition, including by family members of people incarcerated at the jail. Mental health advocacy groups, who of course likewise want the jail to serve the needs of people in the jail, nevertheless asserted the need to direct limited resources to enhancing community-based services.

Blue Ribbon Commission chair LaDoris Cordell, known for her civil rights advocacy, wrote in this publication that building a new jail is the wrong course of action. So did I, and like Judge Cordell I have toured the jail and care deeply about the conditions of confinement in correctional facilities. They voted for a new jail even though the board’s own auditor reported the administration’s recommendations were flawed and lacked evidentiary support. The height of arrogance.

What a lot of wasted words and effort.

The missed opportunities

As one of the supervisors said, there will come a time when we need to build a new jail. Buildings deteriorate. But now is the wrong time: when the mental health crisis in the community is so pronounced, when the community is in the midst of reimagining our criminal legal system and how we respond to conduct resulting from poverty, homelessness, addiction and unmet mental health needs.

Look at this amazing report by Silicon Valley De-Bug, which represents the voices of justice-involved people in our community. Look at the sound solutions put forward by a group of advocates and experts, including the leader of a nonprofit serving the mental health needs of Black youth.

We don’t even know if this sheriff will remain in office and what her replacement might think about all this. We don’t know who the next district attorney will be—one of the leading candidates is against building a new jail.

The “reasons”

So what explains this retrograde decision? It seems to be a mix of ego, impulse and ignorance.

The tie-breaking vote, Supervisor Lee, tried to put himself forward as carving out a middle ground. But his idea to also build an expensive new mental health institution was predicated on an outdated and false narrative about the deinstitutionalization efforts of the 1970s and 1980s. The idea was also admittedly unformed—he asked for yet another set of recommendations about what type of mental health facility would be best.

He also proposed turning the jail grounds at Elmwood into a services hub. So Lee thinks the best ways to address a mental health crisis are either by isolating and segregating people with significant disabilities or by forcing those who aren’t segregated to receive services at a site stigmatized by its connection to punishment and criminalization.

Lee seemed proud to offer an idea he saw as innovative and creative. It’s not. It’s old thinking that perpetuates the damaging conflation of mental health disability and dangerous criminality. It is paternalistic, and it ignores the advice of providers to place services in the community.

Finally, Lee suggested the existing consent decrees require a new facility be built. This is simply false.

The harm

Of course, beyond the frustration over feeling unheard and uncounted, there is also real pain, anger and hopelessness.

With elections coming up, it is possible that the balance of power on the Board of Supervisors will tilt toward facts, accountability and respect for community outcry—and against doubling down on caging people because of their mental health disability. It could tilt against ignoring the structural racial injustice that continued commitment to imprisonment perpetuates.

In the meantime, we have not yet come remotely close to fully reckoning with the persistent ableist stigma, the intersection of disability discrimination and racism or the fact that we continue to accept the outrageous human and economic costs of incarceration. We resist this reckoning because we continue to think of those in jail—most of them Black, brown and/or disabled—as having less worth, as having nothing in common with us, as being less normal. Less human.

The lack of humility, the unwillingness to do the research, the knee-jerk compulsion to build our way out of a crisis: these are the superficial reasons for the board’s failure last week. But they are layered atop a deep historical foundation of prejudice. Sadly, our representatives have shown themselves willing to pay big money to further entrench these prejudices.

San José Spotlight columnist Aaron B. Zisser is the former San Jose Independent Police Auditor. He previously worked as an attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and a consultant to Bay Area police and jail oversight entities. He continues to work in the field of police oversight and reform. His columns appear every first Friday of the month. Contact Aaron at [email protected]

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