Updated: County supervisors decide to build new jail

The Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose. The county also has a jail in Milpitas. AP file photo.
The Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose. The county also has a jail in Milpitas. File photo.

Daily Post Staff Writer

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a plan to build a 500-bed maximum-security jail in San Jose after speakers criticized the project for three hours.

At the same time, the county will explore building a behavioral health treatment facility outside of jail.

The speakers, member of the public who called into the meeting and were limited to one minute per person, said they want mental health and drug treatment prioritized. Jails are traumatizing, not healing, and people with mental health issues shouldn’t go there, they said.

But District Attorney Jeff Rosen and County Executive Jeffrey Smith said it wasn’t an “either or” proposition — both could be done. The county should have a jail that promotes human dignity and rehabilitation, as well as more mental health treatment options, Rosen said.

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg has been the biggest opponent of a new jail. She said the county can’t prioritize everything at once. Getting the jail financed, approved and built will prove long and complicated, and the time spent on that project will take away from building any treatment facilities she said.

“Building a jail is a major, ongoing cost and a continuation of failed policies,” she said.

Supervisor Mike Wasserman took the other side. The county has needed a new jail for over a decade so the building is accessible, seismically safe and humane, with more outdoor space and sunlight, he said.

Everyday, the courts are sentencing people to jail time. If Santa Clara County can’t house them, then they’ll be moved to other counties away from family, reducing their likelihood of rehabilitation, Wasserman said.

Other jails may be inhumane, while Santa Clara County’s would be state-of-the-art, he said.

“We know a new jail will be the best of any jail,” he said.

It came down to a 3-2 vote, with Chavez and Ellenberg voting no on a new jail, and Wasserman, Supervisors Joe Simitian and Otto Lee voting yes.

“I’m more in the ‘let’s do both’ camp,” Simitian said.

The new jail would be built at the former site of the Main Jail South, which was demolished in mid-2020. The county would tear down Main Jail North and parts of the Elmwood jail at the same time.

Original story printed Monday, Jan. 24

Headline: County considering new jail though some want a facility to deal with mental health issues of arrestees

Daily Post Correspondent

In a possible reversal of plans to build a mental health treatment facility for inmates, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors will discuss Tuesday (Jan. 25) whether to construct a 500-bed maximum-security jail.

The new jail is part of a proposed framework for addressing the needs of Santa Clara County inmates, who are now housed at the main jail in downtown San Jose or at the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas. Those facilities serve the entire county.

The county has made progress in reducing the number of inmates in its facilities, from a peak of 4,386 in 2014 to an average of 2,271 in early 2021. As of February 2021, there were 573 inmates needing high security, 1,111 medium-security inmates and 608 low-security individuals in county jails, according to a report to the Board of Supervisors from Deputy County Executive Martha Wapenski.

“While the county has reduced the jail population significantly, and will continue with diversion and release options for the low- and medium-security individuals, the county will still need jail capacity of 500 beds for the maximum-security individuals,” the report said.

The new jail would be built at the former site of the Main Jail South, which was demolished in mid-2020. Supervisors will discuss tomorrow whether to move ahead with a redesign of a previous plan, which called for a 535-bed jail at a cost of about $390 million.

At the same time, the county would develop a plan to tear down Main Jail North and parts of the Elmwood jail. There’s a critical need to decommission those facilities to improve living conditions for inmates, Wapenski said in her report.

The proposed framework for the jails also aims to expand behavioral health services for inmates and minimize the need to keep people in custody.

Although the Board of Supervisors had previously approved plans for a new jail to replace Main Jail South, Supervisor Dave Cortese in 2020 suggested that the county analyze the costs and benefits of building a licensed mental health facility to house and treat inmates instead.

And in October 2020, the board voted to halt work on the new 535-bed jail.

“At its core, the new facility should center on care first, jail last,” Cortese said at the time, according to news reports. The former supervisor now serves in the state Senate.

Supervisors had been scheduled to discuss the county’s jail facilities during a November meeting, but the discussion was postponed at the request of Supervisor Susan Ellenberg.

Ellenberg said she wanted more information included in the report. She also said that supervisors had never asked for a maximum-security jail.

The debate over jail facilities comes after county supervisors Joe Simitian and Otto Lee last year accused Sheriff Laurie Smith of mismanaging $450 million in county funds allocated to jail reforms, which they said had been moving at a sluggish pace.

The welfare of mentally ill county inmates has been an issue. In a 2018 incident, inmate Andrew Hogan experienced psychiatric distress while he was being transferred between facilities and battered his head against the inside of the van, suffering a major brain injury. The county settled with Hogan’s family for $10 million in a legal case over the incident.

Another mentally ill inmate, Michael Tyree, was beaten to death by three correctional officers in 2015.

The sheriff held a news conference in August to refute some of the allegations against her. During the event, Paula Canny, an attorney who represented the families of Hogan and Tyree, defended Smith. Canny said mentally ill people are being sent to jail because there aren’t enough mental health beds.

The report to the supervisors for tomorrow’s meeting includes data on the number of inmates who have been diagnosed with a mental illness or are taking psychiatric drugs. On Aug. 31, 2021, about 60% of the 2,531 total inmates fit that description.

Meanwhile, the idea of a mental health treatment facility is being considered at a regional level.

In September, Santa Clara County officials met with representatives of San Francisco, Contra Costa and Alameda counties to discuss the possibility of a regional facility. The parties expressed interest in continuing the discussions, according to the report to the Santa Clara County board.

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