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Santa Clara County Trades Jail Plans for Mental Health Facility

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors reinforced its commitment to build a new mental health facility instead of a new jail.

But the path will not be easy.

In October, the board voted to halt reconstruction plans on the now-demolished Main Jail South and instead replace jail cells by focusing on mental health needs of residents.

Supervisors noted that with the local jail population down by a third to about 2,000 inmates, it was the perfect time to reimagine how to deal with crime and rehabilitation.

Supervisor Dave Cortese, who authored the initiative, argued that there is no longer “a need for Main Jail South,” because most of the inmates are not high-risk.

County Executive Jeff Smith agreed, and said the jails could free even more inmates.

But changing the nearly decade-long plan of rebuilding a jail to now constructing a mental health facility becomes complicated and potentially costly because there are already bids in place—and if the county were to let those bids expire, the mental health facility could take an additional four years to just start construction, Smith warned.

So instead, the board agreed to work with bidders to reinvent the wheel and come up with a new “outcome-oriented design to ensure no [jail] re-entry,” Board President Supervisor Cindy Chavez said.

But even if it awarded a bid and found the perfect design for the proposed mental health facility, the county maintains that it is still legally required to build a new jail because of a settlement stemming from a pair of 2018 lawsuits that alleged a lack of mental health and medical services and callous conditions for inmates.

“We need a new mental health facility and we need a new jail,” Supervisor Mike Wasserman said. “We have the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] issues that are enormous, we have the consent decree and we have a federal order to construct a new jail … so let’s move forward with the jail.”

Wasserman suggested that the county change Elmwood Correctional Facility—which is not up to ADA standards—from a men’s jail to a mental health facility and move forward with building the new Main Jail South to fulfill both needs.

The board directed County Counsel to reach an agreement with the 2018 lawsuit lawyers to fulfill obligations without building a new jail.

However, the Prison Law Office, the lead litigator in one of those cases, disputes the county’s claim that a new jail is mandatory. And Raj Jayadev, head of civil rights nonprofit Silicon Valley De-Bug, said the question is at the very least a matter of debate.

Supervisors hope to have a construction plan by September 2021.

Criminal justice reform groups applauded the county’s decision, which comes five years after the murder of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree by three jailers brought widespread attention to systemic problems at the local Department of Correction.

“This is a moment of pride for those of us who have been fighting against incarceration since Michael Tyree’s murder and through three hunger strikes,” said Jose Valle, a former inmate who now works full-time as an organizer for De-Bug. “It is an acknowledgement that building a jail is not a solution to the harm of incarceration, does not address our communities and our county can and must do better.”

Joseph Vejar, one of the inmates who helped lead hunger strikes at the Main Jail, and his wife Benee Vejar echoed Valle’s sentiment.

“The stoppage of this jail, where I once was housed, means a path to true justice and that the community can be architects of our future,” said Benee Vejar, who, like Valle, spent the past five years advocating for inmates’ rights and decarceration through De-Bug. “My husband sat 24 hours in lockdown with no air, no sunlight in that jail. And now, because our community came together, we have shut down the construction of the new jail, so other families won’t have to endure the pain we did.”

Jana Kadah
San Jose Inside

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