Quick Take:

Santa Cruz County leaders are starting to study a potential new jail because of the current facility’s poor and cramped conditions. A new 500-bed facility is expected to cost around $200 million and take as long as eight years to build. Local activists and restorative-justice advocates say that they’d rather see that money invested in housing support and social services to help keep people out of jail.

Local leaders say they are starting the process to study whether to spend hundreds of millions to build a replacement for the cramped and deteriorating Main Jail in Santa Cruz.

County spokesperson Jason Hoppin said the government is looking at hiring a consultant to perform a needs assessment for a potential new facility and expects to take a request to hire a consultant to the board of supervisors this fall. Hoppin said that work includes determining the kind of space needed for services like intake and behavioral and medical health.

The Santa Cruz County civil grand jury noted in a May report that building a new 500-bed facility was expected to cost $200 million, or around $400,000 per bed, and would take five to eight years.

“This is a very expensive project, and while we recognize the need, we have no funding identified at this time,” Hoppin said.

Hoppin said that “ongoing maintenance issues’’ have made the facility costly to keep up, and the jail’s high flood risk due to its location in the floodplain adjacent to the San Lorenzo River is another reason the county needs a new facility. The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to Lookout’s multiple requests for comment by publication time.

The Santa Cruz Main Jail
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

The jail at 259 Water St. in Santa Cruz opened in 1981 to house 92 inmates and has been expanded twice since; it can now hold up to 319 inmates. Most of the jail’s population are people still awaiting trial, with many dealing with substance abuse or mental health issues. The jail has faced struggles with overcrowding and staff shortages, according to the grand jury report, which described the jail as “dungeon-like” and “grim, gloomy and cramped.”

It has suffered from poor conditions and safety issues, including equipment failures and violent assaults. The county has paid out millions of dollars in settlements for lawsuits by inmates and their families.

Yet despite the current jail’s ongoing problems, some activists and restorative justice advocates say they would rather see the money used for services to prevent incarceration in the first place.

“Using prisons and jails for creating safe communities shouldn’t be our primary response to harm,” said Alaya Vautier, restorative justice program manager at the Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County. “Data shows us that what makes communities safer is the availability of resources.”

The Santa Cruz County Jail in December 2020
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Vautier cited things like affordable housing, mental and physical health care and food security as major societal aspects that deserve more funding: “If we want a happy, engaged and safe community, that’s where we should be putting our attention and money.”

Beyond just funding opportunities, Vautier said implementing restorative justice and conflict resolution skills as topics in schools can help deter harmful responses to conflict in the future, and shift the conversation away from incarceration.

“If we know how to manage our conflicts, it’s less likely they’re going to escalate into a violent situation,” she said. “We can create the kind of change we’re looking for when we respond to an incident of harm with a restorative-justice lens as opposed to a punitive lens.”

Jasmeen Miah is a licensed marital and family therapist who has been closely involved in social justice organizing and advocacy over the past several years. She started the Instagram page Abolition Santa Cruz and co-founded a group called Santa Cruz People Over Policing (SCPOP) to advocate for prison alternatives and emphasize the importance of community care.

“I would not be at all for using all that money to build a new jail, but I do agree that we need to improve conditions for people currently in our jails,” Miah said, explaining that the pandemic led to a reduction in the incarcerated population, which is a main reason she does not think a new jail is necessary. In the early stages of the pandemic, the state issued an emergency bail schedule that caused local courts to require jails to set bail for misdemeanors and some felonies at $0.

Miah said that she was “shocked” to hear that many in jail are on detox, or managed withdrawal, despite jails not being proper detoxification facilities. She said that she thinks funding adequate care and ensuring inmates receive proper medications and treatment should be a main priority in improving the current jail.

“To me, they’re being sentenced to death,” said Miah. “When people are detoxing from alcohol or opiates, they need treatment or they can die, and that’s what we’re seeing in these jails.”

In its May report, the civil grand jury noted that building a new jail won’t solve chronic staffing issues, including high turnover among correctional officers. It pointed to efforts to reduce the jail’s high recidivism rate — 60% of those who spend time in the jail end up there again — as ones the county should explore before opting to construct a new facility.

Miah cited housing as the most vital aspect to fund in order to prevent incarceration, as not having a stable living environment can lead to mental health crises. Those same people then can struggle to engage with treatment options due to their housing instability. Further, Miah said, current services for the unhoused — like safe parking spaces that allow people to sleep in their vehicles — might not be enough.

“It’s a good idea in theory, but the tier of safe parking with the least restrictions is full,” she said, adding that the way some of the programs are set up will deter some of the unhoused population from taking them up. “A lot of them don’t allow pets, or don’t let them outside their vehicle after a certain time. There are issues with our current programs and that’s why people aren’t taking resources.”

Hoppin said that the county does invest in prevention and social services, including a new crisis stabilization center for youth on Soquel Avenue in the same campus as the sheriff’s office. He added that the county has also invested in behavioral health bridge housing and juvenile justice diversion, which has cut down on the juvenile hall population.

“Santa Cruz County has been a leader in those kinds of programs,” said Hoppin. “But I think the need for services is pretty apparent, so it’s difficult to provide those in an aging facility without the space to do it.”

And Miah argues that current investments only scratch the surface of need.

“If there’s enough money to pay consultants to talk about a new jail, I think a lot more can be going towards social services,” she said. “If it comes from law enforcement, that’s what needs to happen because we’re building a world where we won’t even need law enforcement, hopefully.

“It’s not just about tearing down policing and prisons, but it’s about building up a whole different world that renders those things obsolete.”

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Max Chun is the general-assignment correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Max’s position has pulled him in many different directions, seeing him cover development, COVID, the opioid crisis, labor, courts...