Jail construction has long been a hot-button issue in California, where activists have lobbied ardently against the long-term warehousing of an ever-growing inmate population. Jail opponents say that new prisons benefit the people who run them — and the politicians who champion them — much more than the rest of society. Not for nothing have they dubbed the rapid expansion of jail infrastructure a "prison industrial complex."
But officials in San Mateo County say their new jail is entirely warranted, especially given the current state of the women's facility in Redwood City and the increased burdens on counties in light of realignment. Sheriff Greg Munks says the new jail — which broke ground last year, and is scheduled to open in 2015 — isn't just an improvement for the county's correctional system, it's a necessity.
"The woman's jail is deplorable," Munks said. "It's overcrowded. There are no classrooms, and no private meeting areas. The only place they can hold trauma treatment classes is in the middle of a busy area where food is being prepared and laundry is being folded. There's no recreation center for physical activity, and the visiting area is a little phone booth with scratch glass that you can barely see through."
He says that San Mateo County has done everything it can to release its low-level offenders, and right now the remaining inmates — especially the women — are "stuffed in every nook and cranny." With 130 female inmates, and only 84 lawful beds to put them in, San Mateo has obliged women prisoners to double-bunk or stay in odd quarters. It's sent 20 of them over to the men's jail, and put 15 more in what Munks describes as a "transitional facility."
He says the new jail will alleviate over-crowding by providing beds for 688 inmates, which would allow the county to shutter its current women's facility altogether. It would also provide ample space for job training, rehabilitation, recreational facilities and GED programs.
But activists from the American Civil Liberties Union and the anti-prison group Critical Resistance say the county merely wants to lock more people in cages. Critical Resistance campaign director Roger White says that the county should funnel more money into crime intervention and social services, rather than pouring a projected $165 million into the new prison.
"I think that the policies that San Mateo has chosen to pursue are not policies that are reducing its jail population," he said, pointing out that the new jail will add about 500 additional beds for inmates not currently housed in the county — which means the county is effectively opening the door for more prisoners.
Opponents' last hope is an $80 million deficit that the county hopes to fill with a grant from the Board of State and Community Corrections, which is distributing $500 million to counties throughout California, to help cope with realignment. The board will release its request for proposals this week, but by the time it awards funding in 2014, construction will be well underway at the new Redwood City lock-up. Munks predicts the county will already be about $100 million in the hole.
"We're just trying to get straight answers as to whether or not we can get reimbursed," he said, assuring that San Mateo County shouldn't have any trouble securing its piece of the realignment pie.
But White sees a small silver lining. Though he and other activists won't be able to stop the new jail from opening, they can at least be a thorn in its side. He and other activists are lobbying the corrections board to only reward counties that are actively reducing their prison populations — and he insists that San Mateo County isn't one of them.
"If they fail to get this $80 million," he said, "It could be a huge blow to their ability to move forward."