Commission urges improvements to conditions at Santa Cruz County women’s jail

The Blaine Street women's jail (left) adjacent to Santa Cruz County Main Jail.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Commission on Justice and Gender will continue to advocate for the permanent reopening of the Blaine Street women’s facility at Tuesday’s meeting of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, along with recommendations for better health care, safe housing for recently released inmates and a third-party investigator to probe complains of sexual assault.

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A commission that advocates for fair treatment of female prisoners in the county says it will continue to press the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office to permanently reopen the Blaine Street women’s jail even as the 32-bed facility is being temporarily used to acommodate an electrical upgrade for the main jail.

The push to reopen the facility is among eight major recommendations that the Commission on Justice and Gender (JAG) is set to present to the county board of supervisors Tuesday. The group, which works to improve the lives of women in the criminal legal system and to reduce trauma and rates of recidivism, has pressed for the reopening of Blaine Street for women in custody since the facility’s September 2021 closure amid staffing issues.

The sheriff’s office said Friday that it would reopen the medium-security facility to house prisoners as it works on the yearlong electronics update to the main jail’s housing units.

JAG’s report to the board of supervisors this week will also advocate for improving health care, identifying and developing safe and supportive housing for women after they are released from prison, and press the sheriff’s office to establish an outside reporting mechanism for Prison Rape Elimination Act concerns. That would entail hiring a third-party investigator to probe reports from women in custody of sexual assault within the facilities.

The women’s facility of the Santa Cruz County Jail has been closed since September 2021.

JAG co-chair Celeste Gutierrez stressed that hiring an outside investigator would make it easier for women to come forward and report sexual assaults. Currently, such complaints are investigated by an internal investigator with the sheriff’s office. In the past six years, three law enforcement officers in the county have been fired and prosecuted for sexual misconduct with inmates.

Gutierrez said the group is also pushing for women’s facilities to have access to the same educational and vocational opportunities as men’s jails.

“We know that when providing opportunities for rehabilitation, educational and vocational training is an investment in public safety, because nearly everyone will eventually be released into the community,” she said. “Those opportunities reduce recidivism, and allow people to connect with their families and community at large.”

Gutierrez gave an example that Rountree, Watsonville’s medium-security facility, offers food-service certification education, but Blaine Street did not. “I think it’s rad that they’re opening up these education and vocational opportunities for the men at Rountree,” she said, “but there aren’t any women there.”

JAG’s recommendations also focus on how women reenter society post-incarceration. That includes safe and supportive housing — housing arrangements that keep women from being released into homelessness, where they are at high risk of assault. Advocates have pushed for safe housing for women post-release for years, and have since 2019 recommended developing this service to the board of supervisors.

“For the most part, if you look at families, it often falls on the shoulders of women to take care of the health not just of themselves, but also their families,” Gutierrez said. “And with housing, you have that sense of stability knowing that you have a roof over your head.”

As for health care, Gutierrez said that care providers in the jails work under government contracts, and governments often go with the lowest bidder to save money, which does not always translate to the best care.

“I get that there has to be a balanced budget, but at the same time, having a healthy, thriving community can’t be boiled down to money,” she said. “A healthy community means that you have people that can enter the workforce, which creates a larger tax base. We’re really shooting ourselves in the foot by not taking care of each other.”

Gutierrez said that 63% of incarcerated women are on Medicaid and prescription medication and 39% are on psychiatric medications upon release — but they are given only a one-day supply, and after that are on their own to navigate the health care system.

“If you’re on psychotropics, and suddenly you’re released without a doctor lined up, you won’t get your prescription filled in time,” she said, explaining that that can lead to negative side effects or worsening mental health.

Gutierrez said that if these changes are taken seriously, the community becomes a better place for everyone: “If we can set the standard of the quality of living for someone who is incarcerated, I hope that will also increase and improve the standard of living for everybody else,” she said.

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