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$89M expansion set for Sacramento County jail. Here’s why the need is called ‘critical’

Sacramento County’s jail is set for a major expansion, as its Elk Grove facility adds an $89.3 million medical and mental health ward to accommodate the increase in inmates diverted from state prisons to county jails in recent years.

On Tuesday, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors authorized the county to start receiving bids for the seven-building, 86,000-square-foot project next to the existing Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center.

RCCC is the main custody facility for inmates serving county jail sentences from Sacramento County courts. It houses about 1,700 inmates, including overflow from the county’s Main Jail in downtown Sacramento.

The new buildings will house medical, rehabilitation and support services: 26 medical and mental health beds, a pharmacy, a clinic and infirmary, classrooms, a culinary arts room, a vocational shop building, a laundry and a warehouse, among other things.

The county is expected to award a contract for the expansion project this July, with the project completed in April 2021.

“This expansion is for us to basically get with the times, and to have a facility that allows us to do more efficient and effective services,” said Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Sgt. Tess Deterding.

The jail’s old medical housing unit is “severely outdated and inadequate for providing services to our inmate population,” then-chief of correctional services David Torgerson told the board in July 2017.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population in 2011 to address dangerous overcrowding, state officials have passed laws that shifted the responsibility for thousands of non-violent, non-serious offenders with sentences longer than a year from prisons to county jails – a process called “realignment.”

Torgerson told the board in 2017 that only eight of the existing 25 medical and mental health beds are in a secure environment, with the rest in minimum-security open areas.

“That layout worked when we had very minimum security inmates – drunk drivers, petty thieves, that type of thing,” Torgerson told the board. “But today, after (realignment law) AB 109 and a lot of the laws have changed, we no longer house (only) those individuals.”

In 2017, 42 percent of the total Sacramento County inmate population was receiving some level of mental health services, according to Torgerson.

Plans for expanding RCCC have been in the pipeline since 2013, when the Sheriff’s Department conducted a jail needs assessment that found “a critical need” for medical and mental health beds. RCCC does not have specified housing units for inmates with “significant emotional or psychological problems,” according to the assessment.

But Tuesday’s approval to start accepting construction bids comes with renewed urgency to fix deteriorating inmate conditions at county jails across the state.

A McClatchy and ProPublica investigation this week found that since realignment efforts, inmates are dying at a higher rate, as many county jails have struggled to handle the influx of violent and mentally ill inmates incarcerated for longer sentences.

And last year, Sacramento County jails were sued for allegedly confining inmates in “dangerous, inhumane and degrading conditions,” including failing to provide adequate mental health and medical care. Sacramento County’s own expert witnesses have acknowledged that the county needs to improve how it handles inmates with serious mental illness.

“These serious problems are longstanding, and are the result of the dangerous over-representation of people with mental health needs who are incarcerated at the jail and the County’s failure to provide the resources to deliver clinically necessary treatment to them,” Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, an attorney at Disability Rights California, one of groups that filed the lawsuit, previously told The Sacramento Bee.

County officials hope the increased services will better prepare inmates released from jail, putting them “in a better position mentally and physically,” said Supervisor Don Nottoli.

“The overall idea is to reduce the prison population,” Nottoli said, “and bolster our efforts to make re-entry not so frequent because people have received services that have helped turned things around.”

The state is paying $80 million of the project budget, or about 90 percent. The state funds were awarded through SB 1022, a 2012 law that allowed the state to direct $500 million to Sacramento County and 14 other counties for replacing, renovating and expanding mental health and rehabilitation facilities at county jails.

Sacramento County will pay the other roughly $9.3 million toward the project. The county currently pays about $123 million in net costs towards corrections and its associated health services.

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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