Aug 7, 2015
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Community groups are planning to rally in Martinez Tuesday against a proposal to build a new, 416-bed high-security jail facility at the West County Detention Center in Richmond.

From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., representatives from health, faith, labor and civil rights groups will assemble at the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office at 651 Pine St. in Martinez to denounce what they view as an unnecessary jail expansion.

(The above picture, printed in a civil grand jury report, is from the Martinez jail, which sheriff’s official call outdated)

On Aug. 18, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hear a final report on the sheriff’s intent to apply for $80 million out of the $500 million in state construction bonds earmarked by Senate Bill 863. The funds must be used to construct modern facilities emphasizing rehabilitation, without adding beds to a county’s correctional system, the sheriff’s office said.

The legislation was a response to the prison realignment of 2011 that transferred nonviolent offenders to county jails. In order to qualify for the funds, the county must pitch in about $9 million toward the project.

martinezjail.8-7-2Sheriff David Livingston proposes to use the $89 million to build a high-security facility on the existing medium-security campus at 5555 Giant Highway in Richmond. The building would include seven housing units for 416 people, including a unit for inmates with acute mental illness and also 64 beds for people who require stabilization or detox. Constructing such a facility at other county jail sites, including Marsh Creek, would be less practical and more expensive, Livingston said.

Under the plan, up to 400 inmates from the Martinez jail would be transferred to the Richmond facility. The sheriff said that will create more room at the Martinez jail to separate warring gang members and other high-risk inmates and create better spaces for support services. A recent civil grand jury report noted that inmate-on-inmate violence has increased 50 percent in the past year at the Martinez jail.

The Martinez jail (pictured below), built in 1978, lacks adequate space to provide for its current high security population as well as for rehabilitative support services, Livingston said. The proposed Richmond facility, on the other hand, would include 31,515 square feet of space dedicated to vocational and rehabilitative  programming, family visitation, clinical and medical services, he said.

Opponents of the project have called Livingston’s proposal “deceptive,” saying the sheriff’s own data shows a jail vacancy rate of 33-percent countywide. While the county might get $80 million from the state bond, opponents say, it will have to spend millions of its own funds annually to operate the new jail. Opponents believe that money, along with another $1.43 million in state realignment funds the sheriff’s office has in its purse, would be better spent on re-entry programs in local communities.

martinezjail.8-7-1“In a time when people across the country are crying out for racial justice and less imprisonment, what we need is a radical re-envisioning of our approach to criminal justice – not more jails,” Rev. Kamal Hassan, a pastor from Richmond, said in a statement.

Last week, Richmond City Council voted 5-2 to oppose the project. A number of community groups have joined its call, including the California Nurses Association, Contra Costa County Racial Justice Coalition, and Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organizing and Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights.

Read an argument by a county public defender opposing the project here (CC Times).

For another point of view, read a retired county judge’s take on why he supports the project here (CC Times).


About the Author

Mike Aldax is the editor of the Richmond Standard. He has 13 years of journalism experience, most recently as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. He previously held roles as reporter and editor at Bay City News, Napa Valley Register, Garden Island Newspaper in Kaua’i, and the Queens Courier in New York City.