Santa Ana May Convert Part of Jail to Mental Health Center

The Santa Ana city jail. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Citing a severe shortage of mental health services in Orange County, Santa Ana officials are considering turning much of their mostly-vacant city jail into a mental health treatment center.

“Here in Orange County, we have a crisis with mental illness,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez in proposing the change during Tuesday’s city council meeting.

The discussion came up when  consultants were hired to study options for re-purposing the jail. The facility no longer houses the vast majority of people arrested by city police because county jails hold them at no expense to the city. 

And the City Council has prompted a quick phase out of the jail’s contract to house federal immigration detainees, leaving more than 350 empty beds and costing the city millions in lost revenue.

Martinez said the number of mental health treatment beds in the county dropped from 1,217 in 1995 to 481 today in a county with a total population of 3.1 million. The drop has been attributed by the county Health Care Agency to public and private insurance companies cutting their coverage for psychiatric hospitals.

“Not just here in Orange County, but across the United States, we have looked at mental illness as a crime,” Martinez said. “It is not a crime to be mentally ill.” 

A mental health center “makes the most sense” for the city jail’s future use, she said, adding that the sheriff of Cook County, Illinois has implemented a “really great model” for this.

The idea has gained traction among three of Martinez’s colleagues. Council members Sal Tinajero, Vicente Sarmiento, and David Benavides have agreed they want a mental health facility to be among the options they consider.

Tinajero, in particular, argued that treating underlying issues like mental illness reduces crime and improves public safety.

Any changes to the jail’s use would require four council members’ votes. A decision isn’t expected until after the consultants, Vanir Construction Management, finish their study and report back to the council in August at the earliest.

The jail has 512 beds, but isn’t used to detain the vast majority of local arrestees because the county Sheriff’s Department jails them nearby at no cost to the city. Only two local arrestees were in the city jail as of Wednesday morning, according to Police Chief Carlos Rojas.

Instead, Santa Ana has been renting out jail beds to state and federal agencies for their detainees. But less than a third of the jail’s capacity is now being used, after the city council phased-out the jail’s largest tenant, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

As of Wednesday morning, the jail had 151 inmates and 361 empty beds, according to Rojas.

One idea floated by Sarmiento is to keep some of the jail’s beds for a smaller holding facility for local arrestees, like those in Anaheim and other cities, while using much of the rest of the facility for services like mental health treatment.

The other three council members – Mayor Miguel Pulido and councilmen Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas – have tried, unsuccessfully, to revive the ICE contract, pointing to the loss of millions of dollars in revenue and the likelihood of immigration detainees being transferred to jails hours away from families and lawyers. They didn’t indicate much support for the mental health proposal.

Pulido said he wants the city to try to “emulate” the early days of the jail back in the 1990s, when it was full of inmates and made money for the city.

“I think the level of occupancy at the jail, that’s the main problem,” Pulido said. “We have more staff than prisoners.”

But if it’s not feasible to increase the inmate population, he said the city could go with Martinez’s mental health proposal.

The jail was planned during a crime wave in the 1990s, and when cities were charged large “booking fees” to keep inmates at county jails. But those fees are no longer charged to Santa Ana, and the jail hasn’t been used to house local arrestees since 1999, according to city staff.

Solorio didn’t say he supported an overall mental health facility. But he said he wants the consultants to look at the feasibility of having the jail provide rehabilitation programs for people getting out of jail, including mental health and drug treatment.

Funding will be a critical question for any alternative use of the jail. It currently costs about $20 million per year to run, including staff and bond payments for its construction. Much of that cost was previously covered by the ICE contract.

James Kendrick, a longtime Santa Ana resident and former parks commissioner, supports the jail and questioned how the city will make up for losing $7 million per year from the ICE contract.

But Tinajero said “the county has a ton of money ready to go, for any organization that is willing to take on this task.”

The Health Care Agency spends more than $200 million per year on mental health services, though Tinajero didn’t say how much is available for new programs.

Meanwhile, health activists expressed concern the consultants chosen by the city only would recommend options that increase the number of jail inmates.

Vanir was hired to manage construction of new jails in Riverside and San Diego counties in recent years, and its jail re-use study for Los Angeles County only recommended jail expansion, according to activists from the Building Healthy Communities coalition.

The coalition has been pushing the city to shift its spending priorities, after a study they commissioned found the city focused more spending on arresting youth than developing them through libraries, mentorship, job skills and other initiatives.

Vanir is based in Sacramento and run by Doreen C. Dominguez. Martinez said she knows Dominguez and that she’s “a good human being” who has hired young people from Santa Ana at her organization.

Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and Resilience OC noted city staff removed several parts of the jail re-use study after Vanir was chosen as the winning bidder.

Among the deletions were requirements that the study include alternatives to detention and that it review conditions in the jail.

In response, Sarmiento had the review of jail conditions put back in. He and other council members emphasized they want a wide variety of proposals from Vanir that are not limited to incarceration.

The council ended up voting 5-0 to award the consulting contract to Vanir, with Tinajero absent and Pulido abstaining. The mayor said he abstained because he was on track to “potentially work” with Vanir years ago in his capacity as an engineer.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at

  • Bob Stevens

    Why not convert the empty beds into a “private jail” like other cities have? Certain portions of the beds are rented out to lower level criminals who pay to stay there but are allowed to leave for work but are otherwise incarcerated. Typically they pay between $100-$200 per night to stay there. Converting just 200 of the beds could yield $20K-$40K per DAY at full capacity. At the low end that could be upwards of 7 million annually. This stupid city is always looking for ways to save money, how about making a little since you dummies insist on cutting off federal contracts.

    • David Zenger

      “This stupid city is always looking for ways to save money”

      They have a pretty funny way of showing it.

    • that would piss off the county sheriff, they also collect $$$ for DUI weekend jail time & such.

  • David Zenger

    “The mayor said he abstained because he was on track to “potentially work” with Vanir years ago in his capacity as an engineer.”

    Um, yeah, sure, whatever you say.

  • LFOldTimer

    Oh, and don’t forget. It was the liberals who fought to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill 50 odd years ago. They thought it was inhumane to lock up a mentally ill patients against their will. And the ACLU fought tooth and nail to keep the mentally ill out of the institutions and on our streets. Reagan wasn’t the only one behind the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. JFK signed the Community Mental Health Act which supposedly transferred inpatient mental cases to outpatient facilities. But Kennedy intentionally failed to create the number of outpatient facilities to handle the spillover. So most of the mentally ill fell through the cracks and were left on the streets untreated.

    And now the liberals in Santa Ana want to lock the mentally ill up again (of course to make a profit to make payments on the outstanding $25 million loan on their albatross jail).

    It’s got nothing to do with the homeless or compassion, friends.


  • LFOldTimer

    Well, I must say that Santa Ana as a location for an insane asylum could not be a better choice. 😉

    Mind if I ask a really stupid question? If Santa Ana can’t find inmates to put in their jail and pawn all their city’s criminals off on the county jail – why did the Council approve the construction of a jail this size in the first place?

    I guess it doesn’t surprise me. This is the same city that gloated over David Cavazos when they recruited him to be their City Manager and paid him like a rock start. Then after he was OTJ for 3 years they turned around and fired him and gave him a severance of $300,000 or more for doing absolutely nothing. lol.

    There’s an article in the Register about gun violence and shootings in 2016. There were 292 shootings in SA in 2016, a 183% increase from 2013. It’s like a damn war zone. Like the Wild West. lol. If I’m ever called for jury duty in SA I’m going to demand that the government award me supplemental hazardous duty pay for being forced to enter the SA city limits.

    Now the knee-slapper is that the Einsteins who sit on the SA council just declared SA a sanctuary city!!! HA! Yep. Now they will release illegal alien criminals who committed heinous crimes back onto the streets of SA so that they can continue to prey on the rest of the residents and commit more violent criminal acts!!! lol. Not only that, the SA intelligentsia in city government approved setting aside funds to pay for CIVIL ATTORNEYS to represent illegal aliens who fight their CIVIL deportation orders. LOL. Yet they can’t find the money to invest in recreational programs for the SA children!!! HA!

    SA invites more illegal aliens into their city when it has the highest population density of any other OC city, it has the largest homeless population while it complains about the lack of affordable housing!!! LOL! So the council is indirectly promoting MORE CRIME and MORE HOMELESSNESS inside their city! Who could make this stuff up???

    SA is a classic example of a clown circus. All you college students taking city management classes – SA would be a PERFECT study of a Third World city within our national borders.

    With lunatics sitting on the SA council a mental institution right next to SA seat of city government couldn’t be a better location. Just a short walk away from council chambers. lol.

    And now they’re concocting another scam to hire private contractors to run the mental institution with state and county tax dollars. Can you imagine the corruption that would ensue over that deal??? And putting mental patients in lock down behind iron bars would be another classic example of the liberal version of man’s inhumanity to man. If the Board of Supervisors buys into this corrupted scam all should be voted out of office.

    Wake up Santa Ana citizens! You’re about to get hoodwinked once again by your fearless leaders!

  • David Zenger

    A homeless shelter. And an office for the County’s Invisible Homeless Czar.

  • Yvonne Hatch

    I see where U are coming from verified sane but looking at it from another view , I think it’s a brilliant idea. …many of our 15,000 homeless here in OC do need mental health help…I can see this as solving alot of problems for the homeless who need this help…

    • verifiedsane

      The 15,000 homeless number you are using is based upon a point in time count (not the most accurate/verifiable form of gathering statistical data). I would really like to see the data your using that shows that many (what percentage? a majority?) of those 15 thousand need mental health help? Maybe you can get it from the Invisible Homeless Czar?

      “The very idea that the number of homeless people in a place as vast as
      Orange County can be counted with any degree of accuracy in such a short
      span seems on many levels absurd. And some homeless advocates have been
      highly critical of how county officials have handled it in the past.”

      Your assumption using homeless stigmatization should make a nice addition to the next DSM, “homelessness is a mental illness”. What’s next in the natural progression; being poor and disenfranchised will also be considered a mental illness….Brilliant!

      Labeling an entire incredibly deserve population with broad brush strokes does little to address the actual complexity of the without home problem.

      This is the kind of stigmatizing, labeling, and backward thinking that brought us the horrible American eugenics movement in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

      • Yvonne Hatch

        Of course I wasn’t say all homeless need mental health help….I was quoting a Stat that I read about how many homeless are in OC…I find it disgraceful that we can’t help our own citizens & we continue to import & help illegal immigrants. ..I’m all for helping the homeless any way we can…& deport the illegals. ..I’m totally a Trump fan …!!

        • verifiedsane

          I attempt the best I can to disseminate as much information readily
          available as possible; so that I can make informed chooses & form
          reasonable positions on pertinent issues within the discussion topic.

          I truly wish more people did that; because we would have a much more
          united, accountable, and functional Constitutional Republic.

          I detest governmental corruption in all it’s forms, no matter what side of
          isle or politic spectrum it originates. In my humble opinion,
          governmental and public servant corruption is the worst betrayal of our
          nation and people that one can perpetrate (besides out and out treason).
          That is what I find truly disgraceful!

          I happen to believe in the enforcement of our laws (including immigration) as they were written and intended. If people have a problem with the law as it stands; they should elect leaders that will change the law, not ignore it or make
          baseless excuses/arguments.

          FYI: I have certified and accredited sanity paper work stamped with a 24k gold happy face seal. This authenticity documentation has been in signed in blood & witnessed by some of the best known analytical minds that planet earth has to

          Now what do you have to offer up that will vouch for your commentary credentials besides a “Trump, Make America Great Again” yard
          sign, and some standard (yet limited in scope) right leaning talking
          points and rhetoric.

          I believe that is what we call some “t*t for tat” 🙂

  • verifiedsane

    Let’s see if we get this correct….because the city decided to build a giant jail financial monstrosity and tax payer burden that they refuse to use to house criminals & illegal aliens; they now come up with the brilliant idea of pseudo criminalizing mental health, so that the city and it’s non-leadership can cash in by funneling money through private contractors (Vanir Construction Managementon) on the County & State dime which will lead to another city financial boondoggle.

    If this doesn’t stink to high heaven, then Santa Ana has been renamed the New Bandini Fertilizer mountain. The political wrangling and backroom dealing taking place here brings government incompetence to the next level of absolute absurdity.

    How about this! Santa Ana has this huge empty building without any real propose or direction headed toward financial disaster. The city & county has a large and under-served without home population. One must wonder if there are any ideas actually floating around in those little self serving political heads at the counsel or BoS?