By Judith Tannenbaum
One year, during the Great Recession, most San Francisco public schools couldn’t afford to offer summer school. The city’s Juvenile Justice Center, however, was mandated to provide schooling all year round. Therefore, that summer, if a San Francisco teenager wanted or needed to attend summer school, she had to get herself locked up in juvenile hall.
Now we in West County face a similar situation. We have no hospitals, except Kaiser’s small one, and not enough human services to address our community’s needs. But the sheriff and four of our five supervisors want to spend $25 million, plus $5 million more annually, to expand the West County jail.
This is money that would come from our county’s reserve funds (money that’s been set aside for an economic downturn) and from general funds (used to provide basic services like health care, libraries, community law enforcement and infrastructure).
When the sheriff tried to get support for this expansion in the past, he was told that he needed to provide a good reason. So he’s come up with one: the need for mental health services. In fact, from what we can tell at this point, the sheriff’s proposal might well result in more mental health beds at the jail than exist in public facilities throughout West County.
Which would mean, as with San Francisco summer school a few years ago, if a West County resident needed mental health help, he or she better go to jail.
Of course the people we lock up need mental health services and we should provide them. But the sheriff’s proposal is not the way.
After nearly three decades, California and the nation recognize mass incarceration was a big mistake and are moving in an opposite direction toward offering the community-based human services that allow healthy and productive lives for all of us and dramatically reduce the need for jail and prison cells. The sheriff’s proposal goes against this national shift.
Contra Costa County data shows racial disparities for people of color at every stage of the criminal justice process. This New Jim Crow data predicts who will end up in the cells the sheriff wants to build.
Of the five ICE detention centers in California, two are located in Contra Costa County. The first reason to oppose this contract is the fear and danger it causes for many who live here. Also, without this contract, 200 beds would be freed, thereby giving space for much of what the sheriff requests in his proposal.
Although Richmond is where the jail expansion would occur, the sheriff did not adequately consult with the city before making his proposal. The Richmond City Council has formally opposed the jail-expansion proposal.
During the meeting at which our Board of Supervisors approved the sheriff’s proposal, Supervisor Diane Burgis said that her brother was mentally ill and the only time her family felt he might get the help he needed was when he was put in jail.
I taught poetry at San Quentin in the years after Gov. Ronald Reagan closed mental hospitals in our state. One of the associate wardens, a man whose first job had been as an orderly at Agnews State Hospital, remarked that when he went to prison classification hearings in the 1980s, he saw men like those he remembered from the hospital. This outraged him.
We should all be outraged on behalf Supervisor Burgis, her brother, their family and so many others. And we should insist that county money be used for services in the community before someone’s illness takes them to jail.
It’s not too late to tell our supervisors to reject the sheriff’s proposal. We need services, not cells.
Judith Tannenbaum is a writer and teacher. Her books include “Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin.”