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Major Sacramento County jail project stalls after inmate advocates rally against expansion

Major expansion plans for one of Sacramento County’s jails stalled at a Board of Supervisors meeting this week, after dozens of inmate advocates protested the creation of new facilities.

In August, the county received bids for $89 million worth of construction for medical, rehabilitation and support services next to the existing Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove. But both bids were significantly higher than initial estimates, and county staff recommended this week that the board reject the offers and reduce the project scope to keep costs to about $51.3 million.

For months, activist groups have protested the expansion, arguing the county should be more focused on reducing and aiding its existing inmate population rather than planning for its growth. Asantewaa Boykin, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, told the board at its Tuesday meeting “handcuffs are not therapeutic, forced compliance does not equal wellness.”

“We all know that jails are not solving the problem,” Alexandria White, a professor at Sacramento City College, told the board. “We need you all to have the courage and political will to do the right thing.”

After nearly two hours of public comment, supervisors were split on how to proceed. Supervisors Sue Frost and Susan Peters were in favor of moving forward with the project at a reduced scale, while supervisors Don Nottoli and Patrick Kennedy voted against the motion. Supervisor Phil Serna was absent for the vote.

“The way we look at it, the bids are rejected,” County Executive Navdeep Gill said after the split vote. “There’s not a project at this point, so we have to then reevaluate what our options are.”

In June, Sacramento County settled a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by inmates who alleged “inhumane” conditions at county jails, agreeing to a consent decree to make significant changes to its medical and mental health services at its facilities.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population in 2011 to address dangerous overcrowding, county jails have become increasingly overwhelmed as thousands of offenders are transferred into their systems, a process called realignment. The state has since awarded $2.1 billion to help pay for new jails and expansions to adjust.

Overcrowded jails since realignment

In the case of Sacramento County, a majority of the funding for the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Facility expansion – $80 million – would come from money the county has received from 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. RCCC houses about 1,700 inmates, including overflow from the county’s Main Jail in downtown Sacramento.

Of the 65 jail projects awarded funding since realignment, only 12 have opened. The delays have had deadly consequences across California’s county jails, according to an investigation by McClatchy and Propublica published in July.

“It’s clear that if we do not take this money form the state within the next three to five years, there will be requirements from the consent decree that require us to provide a lot of what’s being done with the money here today,” Frost said at the meeting.

But Don Specter, executive director at the Prison Law Office, said the consent decree does not necessarily require Sacramento County to build or expand its jail facilities to address its lack of mental health services. Though creating a new facility is one option, “on the other hand they could reduce the jail population significantly to allow for staff to provide care to existing facilities.”

“The spirit of the consent decree is absolutely not to create more people in the jail, it’s to reduce the number,” Specter said.

County staff estimates there are about $4.3 million in necessary improvements — such as a new water well building and housing facilities — that the county would have to make regardless of whether it receives SB 1022 funding.

Nottoli said that he recognized money doesn’t “magically just appear” and that the county will still have to address those issues.

“That’s part of our job, to figure out other ways to accomplish things that need to get done,” Nottoli said at the meeting. “I’m prepared to say, ‘Thanks but no thanks’ to the state.”

John Prince, who oversees jail construction at the state’s community corrections board, said his office has not heard from Sacramento County regarding how, or if, it will proceed spending its SB 1022 funding. He said nine counties have relinquished SB 1022 money — sometimes because of high construction costs, sometimes because of a shift in opinion by local politicians.

“At this point the ball’s in the county’s court,” Prince said.

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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