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Sacramento County approves $450M for downtown jail improvements

The “extraordinary expense” is meant to bring the site into compliance with a court order regarding inmate care


Since 2020 the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office has been under the consent decree after the county settled a class action lawsuit brought by incarcerated people.

Photo/Xavier Mascareñas via TNS

By Ariane Lange
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors approved a $450 million proposal to build a new intake and mental health clinic facility at the main jail, an “extraordinary expense” meant to bring the site into compliance with a court order regarding inmate care.

Supervisors voted 3-2 in favor Thursday, after rejecting similar proposals multiple times. Two supervisors balked at the expense, but they were outvoted by supervisors who said the county did not have another viable option.

Supervisor Phil Serna, who voted no, told his colleagues he was uncomfortable with the half-billion-dollar price tag for the building alone. “That,” he said, “is roughly five times our annual parks budget.”

The discussion on the jail spanned two days of public meetings. At Wednesday’s board meeting, over 140 people spent more than seven hours on 3-minute public comments. The vast majority of speakers were residents opposed to giving more funding to the jail.

Supervisors were under significant pressure to act. If the county doesn’t improve conditions at the I Street facility, a court could appoint a receiver to make decisions for the board to bring the jail into compliance with a federal consent decree. Since 2020, the jail run by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office has been under the consent decree after the county settled a class action lawsuit brought by incarcerated people.

Lorenzo Mays, the lead plaintiff, spent eight years in solitary confinement while awaiting trial. The lawsuit alleged inhumane conditions in the jail, including dangerous overcrowding, understaffing and a lack of adequate health care services.

The Sacramento jail has placed people with serious mental illness in solitary confinement; according to previous Sacramento Bee reporting, jail officials saw no alternative because of overcrowding. Researchers have shown that extreme isolation generally worsens people’s mental illness. A study in Forensic Science International found that isolation increases the risk of suicide.

At the Wednesday board meeting, county staff proposed adding a multi-story intake center and mental health annex adjacent to the downtown facility. The annex seeks to address one component of the consent decree by creating extra space for mental health treatment.

According to an analysis by the county, 63% of people housed in the jail have a mental health diagnosis and receive some kind of treatment while incarcerated. That makes the jail one of the county’s largest mental health service providers.

Over the course of the 12-and-a-half-hour board meeting Wednesday, critics of the proposal begged the board to focus on reducing the jail population instead of building a new annex. Several people presented statements prepared by currently incarcerated people who urged the supervisors to vote against funneling more money to the jail.

Overcrowded Sacramento County jail

Supervising Deputy County Counsel Rick Heyer told the board Thursday that he agreed with part of the critics’ assessment. He said he had spoken to the plaintiffs’ counsel earlier that day, and population reduction was their primary concern.

“But when we talk about the facilities,” Heyer said, “any plan that doesn’t address the mental health deficiencies of services in the facility, the medical services and (Americans with Disabilities Act compliance) is something that they will view very critically and would probably end up being something they seek an enforcement action on.”

According to an October 2022 report evaluating how well the county complied with the consent decree, virtually the entire jail, medical areas included, was “cluttered, dirty and in many cases filthy” to a degree that was “profoundly disturbing.”

The report said one person had died of alcohol withdrawal and another died of septic shock because medical staff did not follow up on clear warning signs. The report also criticized a lack of mental health beds.

Sheriff-elect Jim Cooper appeared before the board on Wednesday to encourage them to approve the annex.

“The county jails were never built to hold somebody for more than a year,” he said, saying that physical updates were a necessity along with population reduction. Some of the people spending more time in jail are there because of a 2011 law that moved many lower-level offenders out of unconstitutionally overcrowded state prisons and into county jails to serve their sentences.

Spending worries ahead of possible recession

Many supporters of the new annex cited fears that releasing people from jail would have a negative impact on public safety. The majority of people in the jail have not yet been convicted of a crime.

Supervisors Rich Desmond, Patrick Kennedy and Sue Frost voted for the new annex. Retiring Supervisor Don Nottoli and Serna voted against it.

Nottoli and Serna expressed similar reservations about the cost. At the end of his 28-year tenure on the board, Nottoli said that the Thursday vote was one of the most important of his career. He recalled the Great Recession, when he was on the dais cutting hundreds of jobs and slashing vital public services.

“One of the things that was recession-proof was the jail,” Nottoli recalled. “If we build, if we take a mortgage on to improve a very outdated facility, that mortgage will be recession-proof because we will meet our obligations.” Other services for people of the county, he said, “are not recession-proof, I will tell you right now.”

He opposed taking on the debt, he said, because “it will limit this county’s ability if things get bad again.”

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