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Board of Supervisors denies $10M construction contract for County Jail

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

On March 10, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors voted to deny county staff recommendations to approve a $10 million construction contract. The vote vetoed the accelerated expansion of the Main County Jail in downtown Sacramento.

This expansion would have led to a $200 million investment by Sacramento County in a criminal justice system that has

“failed to provide constitutionally required mental health and medical care to people in the jail, employed harsh and extreme forms of solitary confinement, failed to implement essential suicide prevention measures, and discriminated against people with disabilities.” (Mays v. County of Sacramento, 2019)

Britt Ferguson, interim Chief Fiscal Officer (CFO), presented for more than two hours on how stakeholders can benefit from a new “Correctional Health and Mental Health Facility.”

County Counsel Lisa Travis went on record to say that county staff believe the only way for Sacramento County to come into compliance with the Mays Consent Decree, the outcome of a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of people currently incarcerated in Sacramento County’s jails which mandates significant reforms to improve jail conditions and to end the violation of the rights of people with mental illness and other disabilities, is to have a new facility.

Dr. Robin Timme of Nacht & Lewis architecture firm also presented to the Board. He professed that a community’s most seriously ill citizens will inevitably end up in the correctional system and that the best way to ensure their constitutional right to humane and ethical care is to make sure that they are being treated in “a more welcoming environment.” He then went on to show photos of colorful spaces that would be used as a model for the interior of the new jail building. Eric Fadness, a Principal-In-Charge architect at the multidisciplinary design firm Nacht & Lewis, followed with an elaborate explanation of the design-build process, construction management process, and criteria development for project status.

This workshop by County staff and its consultants, went on for over three hours. It's premise: that a newly constructed building would positively impact the culture for the mental health and custody staff inside the facility and that this could lead to them providing adequate care for those detained in the jail.

Meanwhile, Decarcerate Sacramento, a coalition working to end jail expansions and decrease jail populations, was allotted just ten minutes to present on:

  • why a new building will not meet the remedial treatment mandates from the consent decree

  • why it would be less expensive and more efficient – not to mention, more ethical and humane - to shift county funds away from policing and incarceration and towards community-based systems of care that actually keep the public safe.

Tifanei Ressl-Moyer a founding member of Decarcerate Sacramento

and a former staff attorney with Disability Rights California that was involved in bringing the Mays class action lawsuit against the County, and Dr. Christina Bourne, a physician who has worked inside Sacramento’s Main Jail and has witnessed the inhumane treatment of patients inside the jail by custody staff, presented compelling evidence for how expanding current infrastructure would only be giving more space to bad behavior,

no matter how new or “state-of-the-art” the space is, and that only a comprehensive systems approach to transforming medical and mental health care policies inside the jails will ensure accountability of all jail staff.

They also highlighted the findings of the first monitoring report under the Mays consent decree: that

as of January 2021, more than a year after federal approval of the Mays consent decree, the county has not fully complied with any of the mental health provisions, none of the suicide prevention provisions, and only 5% of the medical provisions. Additionally, they called attention to the fact that in Sacramento County, 55% of the jail population has a length of stay of 7 days or less, and 95% of the jail population have a length of stay that is 6 months or less.

All the while, 28 community members sat on hold for three and a half hours waiting for public comment. Health professionals, those with a loved one with mental illness currently incarcerated in a county jail, formerly incarcerated individuals, community members who identify as having a mental illness, and other concerned community members gave well-reasoned public declaration as to why a new building will not solve the systemic problems perpetuated by an unaccountable Sheriff’s Department with a well-documented history of abuse and neglect.

Among some of the most pertinent and powerful public testimony was that from an eight-year-old child who explicitly stated that

“jails do not work...they do not teach people lessons...People do bad things for a reason...Use money for places where people actually get better,” and even recommended a book on social justice to the Board of Supervisors.

Another caller testified that her father lived with a mental illness, was trapped by the revolving door of the carceral system. His mental illness symptoms were exacerbated by the treatment he received by custody staff inside the jails, and what improved his mental health most was when he had access to resources when he was in the community. Yet another caller voiced her deep concern for her loved one’s physical and mental well-being as he has been detained in the jail for over two years awaiting trial. Over two dozen live callers, over 100 emails, and over 700 petition signatures all contained messages of opposition for a new jail building that would have ensured the continued incarceration of people living with mental illness and disabilities and devastated our General Fund for decades to come.

Up until this point, a new “Correctional Health and Mental Health Facility” seemed to be the answer that Sacramento County was counting on to meet the consent decree requirements. Yet, the Board of Supervisors were persuaded by its county residents to exercise their power to insist on how the consent decree is met.

Supervisor Kennedy stated that he came to the meeting with a very open mind and became convinced after reading the consent decree compliance reports that there are other things the county can do from an operational standpoint to change how those detained in the jail are treated.

“We are committed to improving jail conditions and doing so as quickly as possible,” said Supervisor Nottoli Wednesday, marking a realization that a new building would not improve the way people are treated in the jails.

In a 4-1 vote, the Board of Supervisors decided to deny the county staff recommendation to approve the $10 million construction contract. The motion was brought by Supervisor Serna and seconded by Supervisor Nottoli with Supervisors Kennedy and Desmond in support. Supervisor Frost was the sole objector to the motion. The Board will “recalibrate” their approach to meeting the consent decree requirements, starting with an in-depth examination of how to change the culture and behaviors that resulted in the consent decree mandates in the first place.

The County’s Public Information Officer Kim Nava told Fox40 that the general plan will be “reducing the jail population,” which we know can be accomplished by funding community-based alternatives to incarceration.

Weeks, months, and years of organizing went into this historic victory. Less than two years after the founding of Decarcerate Sacramento, the organization has stopped two different jail expansion projects from moving forward. And they continue to fight for the decrease of jail populations and the shift of county funding priorities towards community care.

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