Santa Clara County Trades Jail Plans for Mental Health Facility

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors reinforced its commitment to build a new mental health facility instead of a new jail.

But the path will not be easy.

In October, the board voted to halt reconstruction plans on the now-demolished Main Jail South and instead replace jail cells by focusing on mental health needs of residents.

Supervisors noted that with the local jail population down by a third to about 2,000 inmates, it was the perfect time to reimagine how to deal with crime and rehabilitation.

Supervisor Dave Cortese, who authored the initiative, argued that there is no longer “a need for Main Jail South,” because most of the inmates are not high-risk.

County Executive Jeff Smith agreed, and said the jails could free even more inmates.

But changing the nearly decade-long plan of rebuilding a jail to now constructing a mental health facility becomes complicated and potentially costly because there are already bids in place—and if the county were to let those bids expire, the mental health facility could take an additional four years to just start construction, Smith warned.

So instead, the board agreed to work with bidders to reinvent the wheel and come up with a new “outcome-oriented design to ensure no [jail] re-entry,” Board President Supervisor Cindy Chavez said.

But even if it awarded a bid and found the perfect design for the proposed mental health facility, the county maintains that it is still legally required to build a new jail because of a settlement stemming from a pair of 2018 lawsuits that alleged a lack of mental health and medical services and callous conditions for inmates.

“We need a new mental health facility and we need a new jail,” Supervisor Mike Wasserman said. “We have the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] issues that are enormous, we have the consent decree and we have a federal order to construct a new jail ... so let’s move forward with the jail.”

Wasserman suggested that the county change Elmwood Correctional Facility—which is not up to ADA standards—from a men’s jail to a mental health facility and move forward with building the new Main Jail South to fulfill both needs.

The board directed County Counsel to reach an agreement with the 2018 lawsuit lawyers to fulfill obligations without building a new jail.

However, the Prison Law Office, the lead litigator in one of those cases, disputes the county’s claim that a new jail is mandatory. And Raj Jayadev, head of civil rights nonprofit Silicon Valley De-Bug, said the question is at the very least a matter of debate.

Supervisors hope to have a construction plan by September 2021.

Criminal justice reform groups applauded the county’s decision, which comes five years after the murder of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree by three jailers brought widespread attention to systemic problems at the local Department of Correction.

“This is a moment of pride for those of us who have been fighting against incarceration since Michael Tyree’s murder and through three hunger strikes,” said Jose Valle, a former inmate who now works full-time as an organizer for De-Bug. “It is an acknowledgement that building a jail is not a solution to the harm of incarceration, does not address our communities and our county can and must do better.”

Joseph Vejar, one of the inmates who helped lead hunger strikes at the Main Jail, and his wife Benee Vejar echoed Valle’s sentiment.

“The stoppage of this jail, where I once was housed, means a path to true justice and that the community can be architects of our future,” said Benee Vejar, who, like Valle, spent the past five years advocating for inmates’ rights and decarceration through De-Bug. “My husband sat 24 hours in lockdown with no air, no sunlight in that jail. And now, because our community came together, we have shut down the construction of the new jail, so other families won’t have to endure the pain we did.”

Jennifer Wadsworth also contributed to this report.

7 Comments

  1. After reading this piece I have to wonder if at any point in the decision-making process the issue of public safety was raised? Most county residents are not criminals, and most are not mentally-unbalanced (except when it comes to politics), yet the county’s only concern seems to be for the lawbreakers and lunatics, a minority population that has proved itself a major detriment to the quality of life everywhere.

    I understand the local undesirables have their champions, like the creeps at De-Bug, but when will our politicians start looking out for law-abiding, productive taxpayers?

  2. Ms. Houghton is sick. She does everything in her power to get children molested under the guise of justice. She will NEVER leave your kids alone..

    If she is on your case, turn your head into the other direction. Nothing good will come from speaking out or attempting to protect your children. Valerie will poison you and have you declared mentally incompetent.

    It can never be any other way. She has to maintain her licenses to continue getting kids molested. She has to defend herself.

  3. She could have done it a million other ways.

    It says something about her to do it TWICE.

    There is NO money this time.

    She claims that getting my daughter raped will wash her hands, but I told EVERYONE about it. There will be no reprieve.

    But Ms. Houghton still persists.

  4. Nothing about child molestation bothers Ms. Houghton. She spreads the sickness exponentially.

    My kids are not only being sexually abused, but also have a high probability of being offenders themselves.

    And my ex-wife has been volunteering at several schools and a church daycare. Who knows where else?

    ALL THAT MATTERS IS THAT VALERIE WASHES HER HANDS. WHO CARES ABOUT THE REST OF US?

  5. There is a debate on whether wearing a mask helps the rest of society as a whole.

    But I don’t know a single person that would argue that Megan’s Law doesn’t stem child molestation.

    Houghton has devised Valerie’s Law.

  6. Valerie,

    I promise you that even if you are successful in getting me declared mentally incompetent, I will FOREVER be writing about what happened.

    Sincerely,

    Ben Z.

  7. I was a good father to my kids.

    You had no right to separate us. You had no right to give them to a person who let my son get molested.

    You were my attorney and had a duty to me.

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