Why is Santa Clara County Spending $295 Million on a New Jail?

Editor's Note:

In the wake of the murder of Michael Tyree, who was killed by guards in the jail, a class action lawsuit about conditions, and a hunger strike -- there has been unprecedented scrutiny on the Santa Clara County Jails. The county response has been to build a nicer jail.

As Santa Clara County invests in ways to reduce incarceration with measures such as bail reform and jail diversion, it has also decided to spend $295 million dollars on reconstructing a New Main Jail South.

This amount of money could be invested in directly referring our current jail population to education, mental health and rehabilitation programs. Instead of spending on building more walls, trainings and hiring correctional staff, this money can be invested in prevention and strengthening our community through college courses, teachers, job placement programs, vocational training, drug and alcohol counselors, faith based services, case managers and mental health workers to decrease the likelihood of incarceration.

Beyond the financial burden, the perception and response to crime needs to shift from punitive to an acknowledgement of a symptom of our community needs. But instead, the County is reconstructing a New Main Jail South. 

The irony of the County investing millions into a new jail is that it came in the wake of a murder, a hunger strike, and escalating public alarm around how people are treated in Santa Clara County Jails. 

In 2015, Michael Tyree, a mental health detainee in Santa Clara County’s Main Jail was waiting for a bed to receive mental health services on the outside. Before Michael could lay his head down on that bed, three correctional officers beat him to death. These three officers not only took this man’s life, but robbed Michael of his opportunity to receive the proper treatment he so gravely needed. Two years later, a jury found these three correctional officers guilty of murder.

Then in 2016, prisoners in Santa Clara County’s Main Jail, a majority of whom were pretrial detainees, led a hunger strike demanding an end to cruel and unusual punishment and inhumane conditions they endured in the jails. Over 70% of Santa Clara County’s jail population are pretrial detainees, many of which remain fighting their cases for five years or more because they can’t afford bail. After five days of the hunger strike, the jail administration agreed to make changes.

When prisoners are booked, they are classified according to their charges or gang allegations. Based on classification, prisoners can be housed indefinitely in maximum security housing units without any real path to downclass to a less restrictive setting. This punitive and subjective classification system leaves this population to be vulnerable to correctional officer violence and mental health crises. Prisoners need prosocial time out of cell, they need to be treated with dignity and have access to education and rehabilitation programs.

This classification system violates the constitutional rights of prisoners with cruel and unusual punishment. Additionally, classification disregards in custody behavior because many prisoners with zero in custody write ups or charges for five years or more still remain in a maximum security setting.  

The JFA Institute conducted an audit on the classification system which pointed out the many issues with this flawed system. In an effort to bring these injustices to the attention of the courts, the Chavez Vs. Santa Clara County federal class action lawsuit  aims to be the final straw in true and lasting change to improve restrictive housing, classification, medical, mental and dental health care, non-mobility disabilities, and excessive force. There is a hearing set for June 6th to determine if the case moves forward to trial.

In response to Michael Tyree’s murder, the hunger strike, and many of the new jail reforms, Santa Clara County Jails also plan on strapping themselves with tasers.

In 2017, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved $45,000 for a Taser pilot project in the jails. Previously, tasers were banned from the Sheriff’s department as a result of a civilian death during patrol. Due to all of the reforms, the jail administration is feeling as if they are losing control. Although there is no real data to support claims that inmate violence is rising, the jail certainly believes so. Lastly, after Sheriff Laurie Smith went hard on investigating the three correctional officers who later were sentenced to 15 to life for the murder of Michael Tyree, the officer unions called for tasers. 

On January 23, 2018, the SCC Board of Supervisors also approved a $14 million ($295 million total) increase to build a New Main Jail South, emphasizing better mental health services and bigger yards for minimum security prisoners during out of cell time.

But due to state and national jail reforms, the County projects a decrease in our jail population. Although the New Main Jail South efforts brag of minimizing our jail population from 815 to 545 beds in the new facility; the new efforts still leave many challenges.

Michael Tyree’s murder was the wake up call for change in the jail. We did not see a focus on mental health care until then, but this is still the result of a reasoning that the jail facilities were the cause of Michael Tyree's death. The jail did not kill Michael Tyree – its culture of rouge officers still staffed in our jails killed Michael Tyree.

Although the New Main Jail South is supposed to have great mental health housing and services, a jail is no place for those with mental health needs. Currently, over 50% of Santa Clara County’s jail population has mental health needs. The further irony is that there have been multiple studies linking isolation in jail or prison for long periods of time to creating mental health needs. 

The New Main Jail South is set to house prisoners with mental health needs and minimum security prisoners. This potentially leaves Main Jail North to house the remainder of maximum security prisoners who continue to undergo cruel and unusual punishment based solely on gang allegations, charges, and a non-behavioral based classification system.

The jail administration may be fully equipped with great use of force trainings and policies but until rogue officers and the current culture of the Santa Clara County Jails as a whole is transformed, we may never see meaningful change in the jails.

Related Media:
"The Sweetest Little Boy" - A Siste's Reflection on the Life of Michael Tyree
Prisoners United Win 5 Core Demands & Sacrifice 3 Days of Custody Meals for the Hungry
Prisoners United Issue Statement Against Tasers in Santa Clara County Jails