Community opposition shuts down expansion project

A contentious plan to build a new mental health facility at the Santa Rita Jail has been tabled indefinitely, prompting celebration from community advocates who successfully lobbied against the project and sending Alameda County back to the drawing board.

The expansion would have added more than 40,000 square feet to the Dublin jail complex — already one of the largest in the nation — by constructing a new stand-alone building for mental health services. The building was to contain treatment rooms as well as offices for Alameda County’s department of Behavioral Health.

The county estimated construction costs at $81 million, with about $26 million coming from county taxpayers.

The state of mental health services at the jail has been under scrutiny for years. The vast majority of those incarcerated in the 3,489-capacity facility have some type of mental health condition, and the county is currently under a consent decree that requires them to expand the facility’s mental health treatment services.

Until now, the county Board of Supervisors has approached that requirement by pushing the expansion project. But during a meeting last week, Kimberley Gasaway, director of the county’s General Services Agency, said the building plan had stalled before the state Public Works Board. Without approval, the county cannot access grant funding.

“We were prepared to move forward,” Gasaway said last week. “However, that item was pulled at the request of the state public works board.”

That decision was driven by community activism, according to H.D. Palmer, a spokesperson for the California State Finance Department, whose director is a member of the Public Works Board.

“During the week leading up to the meeting, board members, legislative advisors to the board, and board staff received numerous letters expressing opposition to moving forward with the item at this time,” Palmer wrote in an email. “Based on this, the board decided to pull the item from the agenda in order to allow for more time to fully review the letters and the issues that were raised.”

The move is a substantial victory for community organizations who have long opposed the jail expansion. Restore Oakland, one of the groups that has fought against the facility, described the project as an “exorbitant investment” and “a sinkhole for county funds that could otherwise be used to improve and secure behavioral healthcare resources that would prevent incarceration.”

According to Joy George, an organizer with Restore Oakland, it isn’t ethical or efficient to use a jail as the primary way of providing mental health services to people. Most people are only in Santa Rita Jail temporarily, for as little as 48 hours — not nearly enough time to provide effective mental health care, George said.

“This is a huge investment that is not going to provide that quality of care that they’re looking for, ultimately,” George said. “It’s taking away investments necessary in the community, necessary to prevent people from being incarcerated, and further decline of their mental health.”

George also argues that the consent decree does not require them to find a new $81 million facility. It simply requires them to improve services at a jail with plenty of space — Santa Rita Jail is only about 50% full.

With the expansion plan currently off the table, the county is looking into other ways to provide services without constructing a new building. It is currently unclear how the $26 million the county had allocated to the project will be used.

“The bottom line is we’re looking at alternatives to achieve the results of providing appropriate care, mental health care, at the Santa Rita Jail for those inmates who need that service,” Supervisor Nate Miley said at the board meeting last week.

Community advocates have already notched one victory in blocking the jail expansion. The question is now if they will be able to redirect the money toward the services they believe are most effective.

A budget of $26 million “can buy a lot of things,” George said.

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