Advocates urge California jails to use expansion funds to create programs to help inmates, rather than add beds to house them.
Although only 5 percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, it is home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Some of the most overcrowded detention facilities in the nation are located in California.
To ease overcrowding at the Santa Cruz County Jail in Santa Cruz, Calif., county leaders were awarded $24.8 million in state grants to expand the jail and add beds and job training programs at the Rountree Detention Facility in Watsonville, Calif.
Prison reform advocates are pushing back against the expansion, however, arguing that instead of increasing the number of detainees a facility can hold, it’s time to decrease the U.S.’s notoriously high rate of incarceration. They have encouraged officials to return the money and work on creating and funding community programs instead.
“I think if we work on bail reform, if we work on sentencing reform, if the Sheriff’s Department works more diligently with the prison system and asks questions like ‘Why are people staying in jail so long?’ and ‘Why are they staying in there for arbitrary reasons?’ we will be able to free up extra space for space classrooms in existing areas,” said Tash Nguyen of Sin Barras, the local grassroots group dedicated to advocating for prison abolition and alternatives to incarceration.
“Community programs are more effective and less costly than incarceration,” she added, explaining, “Each person held behind bars in Santa Cruz County costs taxpayers an average of $97.17. Month to month, it is far cheaper to provide permanent housing for the homeless than to lock them up for petty offenses.”
With the clock ticking on whether the city will move forward with the expansion or not, as the Board of State and Community Corrections have until April 16 to decide whether to proceed, some local media outlets have joined Sin Barras in its cause, calling a jail expansion a step in the wrong direction.
In an editorial, the City on a Hill Press editorial team wrote that the country’s prevalent prison-industrial complex is responsible for a variety of “several deeply troubling issues, from institutionally embedded racism in our legal system to perverse financial incentives and poorly thought out social policies.”
“Instead of constructing additional space for incarceration and beefing up funding for social support programs operated inside of jails and prisons, we should spend our money on programs that would help keep people from being incarcerated in the first place,” the editorial said. “We agree wholeheartedly with Sin Barras that ‘not only are community-based alternatives more effective, they are less costly.’”
Though there have been several protests specifically in Santa Cruz about the jail expansion, the city is not the only one to receive money to expand detention facilities. Under a piece of legislation, Gov. Jerry Brown has allocated $500 million to be distributed throughout the state. About $25 million would be going to Santa Cruz.
Rountree is only supposed to hold about 94 inmates, but is currently housing about 100. The main county jail in Santa Cruz has been housing about 352 inmates in its 311-person capacity facility. Due to the overcrowding, two of the jail’s units have portable plastic beds on the floor instead of bunk beds.
“It is clear that the need for infrastructure to support the goal of justice realignment throughout the state is critical,” Santa Cruz County Chief Administrative Officer Susan Mauriello said, while defending the need for the jail’s expansion. “These funds will support the work of the counties to achieve the goals of justice realignment and improve public safety as a result.”
Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Lt. Shea Johnson, who authored the proposal, shared that this expansion “would be good for inmates,” since it would “relieve overcrowding and make it a safer environment for staff.”
“County jails were never intended to house people for a longer period of time, so we need to come up with solutions,” Johnson noted.
In response to public safety concerns, Courtney Hanson, who participated in a protest against expansion, told local media at a rally earlier this year, “The majority of people sitting in the county jail are sitting in there pre-trial. They have not even been convicted yet, they simply don’t have the funds to bail themselves out.”
In other words, Santa Cruz officials have more of a poverty issue on their hands than a crime wave. Prison reform advocates point out that U.S. laws and policies are riddled with “zero-tolerance” policies that criminalize minor infractions, which create a school-to-prison pipeline and an influx of non-violent offenders behind bars.
As the City on a Hill Press editorial team wrote, “an expansion to the Rountree facility would only amount to a Band-Aid covering the real problem causing overcrowding in jails across the state: an overreliance on incarceration to address issues that are ultimately social and economic in nature.
“No amount of extra beds will ever fix the broken policies that send so many to jail. We need to rethink our approach to incarceration — not double down on it.”
Given that the expansion wouldn’t be completed until November 2016 at the earliest, some such as Sin Barras member Kati Teague recommend the city work on creating programs to use the money to help people, not just lock them up.
“Two years is ample time to improve and expand the county’s existing Custody Alternatives Program, implement a host of sentencing reforms, and establish more options for those who cannot afford bail,” Teague said. “Santa Cruz is already a leader in these fields, and should continue to push for innovative responses to problems in our criminal justice system.”