Updated: Jan 21
On January 26, Sacramento County Board of Supervisors was set to decide whether or not the county should begin a $10 million contract with the Kitchell Corporation to guide the county’s project team in the final design phase of a new jail building. They’re calling it a “Correctional Health and Mental Health Services Facility” (a.k.a. Mental Health Jail).
County staff argued that they needed to build this new jail because of a legally binding agreement with the court’s The Mays v. Sacramento consent decree. This document includes hundreds of requirements that address systemic abuses of people with disabilities, people with mental illness and the medical and cultural decisions made by jail staff.
Supervisor Patrick Kennedy spoke first, urging the public that he agreed with a lot of what had been said but thought people inside the jail deserve to have dignity. He stressed that the jail is “ancient and decrepit,” and implied that a new jail would likely promote better conditions. It was hard for us advocates to watch Kennedy begin the conversation this way as he is one of the most vocal supporters of mental health services on the board, and was brave enough to advocate for a $1.5 million “sequestering” of funds from the Sheriff’s Department last fall to be reallocated to non-law enforcement mental health crisis response.
Kennedy’s good intentions were severely misguided, and make us wonder how much of the consent decree he has actually read. Only four of the 400+ requirements involve structural changes, while line after line in the document outlines specific policies and procedures that sheriff and jail staff need to change just to meet basic human rights standards.
The county’s biggest problem with the jail is not the building; it’s the management. So why is Kennedy not more interested in making sure the Sheriff’s Department is changing its behavior (starting with its nearly $600 million budget)?
Supervisor Phil Serna followed Kennedy’s comments in agreement, making us think the two “most progressive” board members were ready to approve this $10 million contract without a plan.
“The alternative to not meeting the consent decree would compromise our General Fund even more so,” Serna said. He added that advocates should “agree to disagree.”
But Supervisor Serna did acknowledge that the board should more strongly consider the practices and behavior of the Sheriff’s Department. Serna stressed that he was “eager to explore” ankle monitors as an alternative, showing how out-of-touch he truly is with what the community is actually demanding, like funding for alternatives to 911.
Serna’s and Kennedy’s attitudes did not change until Supervisor Don Nottoli passionately said, “I’m not prepared to support this today,” stressing that the community’s real concerns had not been addressed. County staff still have no idea what the project will look like and $10 million from the General Fund is a huge commitment that could ultimately lead the County into a project costing at least $150-200 million dollars.
While Serna likes to tout himself as a progressive “ally,” Serna only seems to be moved in the moment when he hears that his fellow progressive and the more “moderate” or unpredictable votes are leaning a different way. Serna stressed how he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to “get comfortable” with this decision, following Nottoli’s lead in asking county staff to hold a public workshop to address the ongoing concerns brought up by the public as soon as possible.
But this delay in the vote didn’t come without pushback from “Frosty Sue” and General Services Director Jeff Gasaway, who stressed that this contract could be terminated at any time and that the cost of construction increases by 5-7% each year. They pushed the board to vote yes now and implied they could always change their minds later.
And we would be remiss not to mention the lack of vision in Rich Desmond’s comment when he described incarceration as a “necessary evil” that will “always exist,” showing just how uninformed and unimaginative he is on the issue.
After talking in circles for an agonizing hour, the board voted unanimously to stall the project and the public workshop may not happen until March or even April. Decarcerate Sacramento continues advocacy towards stopping this new jail expansion that could cost taxpayers up to $200 million for the building alone, not to mention massively inflated ongoing operating expenses and the immeasurable human costs of incarceration.
We need to prevent this gross waste of resources, especially as Sacramento County continues to struggle with the worst convergence of crises in generations. There are better solutions to meeting human rights inside the jails that do not include drastic defunding of our county’s social services for decades to come.