Richmond community groups skeptical of jail expansion program

File photo of a jail cell.

RICHMOND (BCN) — A proposal to expand a jail in Richmond by transferring inmates from the county’s high-security facility in Martinez is meeting tough opposition from public officials and community groups in the city.

The Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office today made its third and final presentation to a group of community organizers, advocates and service providers focused on issues around incarceration and reentry. The group meets monthly under the aegis of the nonprofit, Reentry Solutions Group.

The Richmond City Council is also scheduled to hear its second presentation on the topic tonight and to vote on whether or not to support the plan.

Sheriff’s officials are hoping to take advantage of a competitive state grant offering up to $80 million, with a $10 million matching contribution from the county, for the expansion of treatment and rehabilitation programs, including mental health services at the jail.

The roughly four-year construction project includes the addition of more than 400 high-security beds and roughly 31,500 square feet of space for programming and staff, sheriff’s Capt. Thomas Chalk said.

With the Martinez Detention Facility operating at around 700 beds, or roughly twice its official capacity, Chalk said there are virtually no rehabilitation or reentry programs available to the high-security inmates.

The sheriff’s office wants to take an “enlightened” approach to rehabilitation and reentry with the inclusion of a center where children can visit incarcerated parents, a vocational and life skills center, substance abuse counseling, and a reentry and rehabilitation services unit, Chalk said.

The facility will follow the “collaborative reentry programs” model pioneered by Allegheny County in Pennsylvania that seeks to reduce recidivism and prepare inmates’ transition to the community by coupling the programming inmates receive during incarceration with support services once inmates are released from jail.

Chalk said staffing for the new services would cost an estimated $2.4 million annually.

Rebecca Brown, who helms the Reentry Solutions Group, helped design the model, which she said is based on best practices from across the country and would be staffed by community-based organizations.

“(The Martinez Detention Facility) is not a place for anybody, certainly not a place for people with mental health challenges,” Brown said.

“The sheriff’s proposal is to move 400 people out of that building and into a building that is designed to give them access to services everyday, all day.”

But many in the room were skeptical of the plan and the sheriff’s commitment to supporting rehabilitation and reentry. Tamisha Walker, a founding member of the Safe Return Project, questioned why people need to be incarcerated to receive mental health services and other resources.

“We can leverage money in our communities to treat people so we don’t have to lock them up,” Walker said. “If we think that it’s okay to lock people up so they can receive the maximum services to be healthy in our communities, then I would say we need to check our moral compass.”

For Chief Probation Officer Philip Kader, it’s a false dichotomy to say the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“The money is very defined, so we can’t do something else with it,” Kader said. “You give me $80 million and maybe I would do something different but that’s not how it works.”

Mayor Tom Butt, who first invited the sheriff’s office to present its plan to the council in May, has long voiced his concerns over the plan.

At the Reentry Solutions Group meeting today, his chief of staff, Terrance Cheung said the proposal represents maintaining status quo when the national trend is to target reductions in the inmate population.

“If there was a real commitment to being progressive and having engaging and transformative programming in the jail, they can do that already because the (grant) money is only for construction,” Cheung said. “The sustainability of the programs has to come from the county.”

With nearly 1,000 inmates potentially being housed in Richmond, Cheung said he’d like to see the sheriff’s office commit to providing more resources and funding for post-release services.

Others in the room questioned whether there was any demonstrated need for the new facilities. A needs assessment for the county’s jail system was last completed in 2007 and updated in 2011 and 2013, Chalk said.

The sheriff’s office is currently in the process of conducting a new jail needs assessment, but Chalk said he didn’t know when exactly it would be completed. He ended the meeting by asking attendees what would happen if the county did nothing to modernize.

“At the end of the day, the reality is there’s going to be people in custody,” Cheung said. “We have an opportunity to receive some very significant funding from the state to change that but we also have to have a dedication to funding, and I get that. If you want to do this right, it does cost money.”

The grant proposal is due Aug. 28.

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