Armendariz: Sheriff Barnes, Rise of an Empire

Bernard Brothers, Inc. struck a $261 million deal with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department that will add nearly nine hundred new beds to the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine. This deal, that is being funded with AB 900 and SB 1022 monies and Orange County taxpayer dollars, money intended for necessary expenditures in our county, was approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. What is especially interesting about the deal is that it makes absolutely no sense.

It will also cost the county a fortune. Bernard Bros, Inc.’s base estimate for the cost of construction services is more than $260 million. This is 56% above the county’s initial estimate for the cost of construction. According to Orange County Sheriff’s Department officials, all Orange County jails are currently well under capacity. The current jail population rests around 2,900. The expansion of Musick would increase the county jails’ rated capacity to 6,188. So why the need to add more beds? Sheriff Don Barnes says that, currently, 33% of the jail beds are fifty years old and that 70% of the jail beds are thirty years old. The beds are made out of hard solid concrete and surrounded by steel, built to outlast the Great Wall of China. Prisons like Folsom and San Quentin are over a hundred years old, and still house thousands of prisoners. No reports of concrete beds falling apart have been heard of yet.

The other reason for the jail expansion according to Sheriff Barnes is to be able to “better house inmates with mental health and substance abuse issues.” What the sheriff has failed to elaborate on is how exactly moving these people from older, concrete beds to newer ones will help. With nearly 80% of the incarcerated population suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues, nine hundred new jail beds will not solve the overcriminalization of people with mental illness and substance abuse issues. The reality is that the current jail system in Orange County is designed to punish the incarcerated and not to rehabilitate them.

Incarcerated people in OC jails must make multiple requests for mental health services before they are seen. Some people’s illness is so severe that they are unable to make requests on their own. This is not strictly due to negligence from mental health staff, as many of them do what is humanly possible, but they are simply overwhelmed with patients to see. So, they operate by a process of first-come-first-served, leaving incarcerated patients to wait months just to be seen, if they are seen at all

Few programs are available in the jails and only to a tiny fraction of the population. With thousands of incarcerated people spending more time in county jails, evidence-based, rehabilitative programs that are proven to work must be expanded to include the entire incarcerated population. OCSD does not need more money to do this. They already account for close to 20% of the county’s general fund. On top of that, year after year, county supervisors have increased OCSD’s budget and deputies’ salaries with taxpayer dollars they control. All while reducing the amount of discretionary funds spent on vital services like health care and social services.

The truth behind Sheriff Barnes’ decision to expand the Orange County jail system does not come from a place of empathy for those suffering from mental health or substance abuse problems. It comes from a place of empire-building and a hunger for more power. If Bernard Bros., Inc. builds a bigger jail, he will fill it.

Last year, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department ended their contract with the Department of Homeland Security after nearly a decade of housing immigration detainees in the Theo Lacy Facility and the James A. Musick Facility. After multiple scathing reports from immigration watchdog organizations as well as from the media and numbers of protests that included hunger strikes from detainees inside the Orange County jails and protests by people outside the jails, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department could no longer bear all of the negative attention it was receiving for the abusive treatment of immigration detainees, so they finally decided to end the contract. Immediately after, however, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department made a very discrete and non-public agreement with the US Department of Justice to house federal detainees facing federal criminal charges in the Orange County jails. Many of the federal detainees were originally housed and fighting their cases from a federal detention center in San Diego and Los Angeles, but slowly began to trickle their way into the Orange County jail system. Some of these federal detainees must now make long and excruciating trips from the Orange County jails all the way to the San Diego federal courthouse or Los Angeles, all while chained and shackled, many times only to make a five-minute appearance before a judge and then return back to the Orange County jails.

Who pays for these long trips so that federal detainees can go to court and back, you might ask? Well, taxpayers, of course. So, what does nine hundred new beds at the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine really mean? It means nine hundred new, open beds at the other Orange County jails for a juicy and lucrative new deal with the feds that will allow the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to house more federal detainees, turning our jails into virtual federal detention centers and county jails at the same time. OCSD receives a higher per diem for federal detainees than it does for state detainees.

This expansion of the jail will also exacerbate the perverse financial incentives to continue criminalizing the mentally ill. The Sheriff will need to justify the addition of these 900 new beds by filling them and the mentally and homeless will be his easiest and most vulnerable targets. Allowing jails to become the de-facto mental health institutions for people who require clinically and community-based care will not solve the mental health crisis we see behind bars and in our streets today. Locking people up in tiny cells the size of small parking spaces creates mental health issues, it does not solve them.

The expansion of the James A. Musick Facility has never been about helping incarcerated people dealing with mental health and substance abuse problems. It has always been about the expansion of a king’s empire by manipulating the people of Orange County. Unless you want to pay for this unnecessary landgrab, let your voice be heard and rise against this nonsensical deal that will only waste millions in taxpayer money.

Jose Armendariz is an incarcerated student, writer and organizer. His story and work have been covered in Voice of OC, Cal Matters and La Opinion.

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