Santa Clara County Community Celebrates Historic Move to Stop the Construction of a Jail, and Embark on a Community Process to Explore Alternatives to the Incarceration!
SAN JOSE, CA — After years of being told the process to build a jail was too far along to be stopped, a coalition of Santa Clara County community organizations are celebrating the Board of Supervisors unanimous vote today to stop going forward with the bidding process to construct a new jail, and pivot to an inclusive and robust community process to explore a “Care First, Jail Last” approach to mental health services and public safety - with an aim to have a plan generated by September 2021. Silicon Valley De-Bug organizer Jose Valle has been organizing with those incarcerated and their families for years, and says today’s vote represents a historic shift for Santa Clara County. “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. 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,” says Mr. Valle.
The murder of Michael Tyree in 2015, who was beaten to death while in custody by three Correctional Officers, confirmed what those incarcerated had been saying for years — that Santa Clara County jails were abusive, dangerous, and exposed those under it’s control to inhumane treatment. Michael Tyree’s murder was followed by three hunger strikes over the next five years by those detained in the jails, and their families on the outside.
Joseph Vejar was detained in Main Jail South - the jail that was eventually demolished and was initially planned to be where a new jail was to be built. Mr. Vejar was one of the original hunger strikers, and upon hearing of of the news to stop the building of the jail, says he was estactic, comparing the initial architectural designs of a new jail to the current efforts to designing visions of freedom and community support. “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.” Mr. Vejar’s wife, Benee Vejar, who first started advocating for jail reform during the 2015 hunger strike, is now a leading voice for families directly impacted by incarceration as a community organizer for Silicon Valley De-Bug. After today’s County Board of Supervisors vote, Mrs. Vejar says, “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.”
The Board of Supervisors vote was in response to overwhelming community calls for a a “Care First, Jails Last” approach - a phrase used by Supervisor Cortese, who championed the effort, to describe the value framework the County should follow while looking for alternatives to incarceration. A letter signed by a set of over 40 civil rights and community advocacy organizations was submitted to the Board supporting a Care First Jail Last approach (attached), and was echoed by dozens of public comments from those who have loved ones currently incarcerated and other community stakeholders. The community driven effort was sizable enough to surmount a Santa Clara County Executive report that instructed the County to still build the jail.
The primary focus of the Board while deliberating on stopping the building of a jail was to explore non-carceral responses to those with mental health needs. The pivot is reflective of how this decarceration journey began for many in a public way — the killing of Michael Tyree. Michael’s sister Shannon Tyree, in response to the Board vote, said, “Having mental health support for people like Michael, instead of a jail, will change lives. It could have saved Michael.”
The families of the incarcerated, community organizations, and advocates look forward to charting out a Care First, Jail Last path forward with Santa Clara County officials.
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