Communities across the nation are demanding that police, jails, and prisons be defunded and budgets be reallocated to support community alternatives. COVID-19 has left our communities in need of resources, and California has committed to closing two prisons and lowering our incarcerated population.

Yet Orange County is building a jail. The Orange County Board of Supervisors (BOS) plans to spend over $350 million to expand the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine, converting it into a “Mental Health Jail.”  In addition to the cost of the expansion, the BOS will spend over $61 million annually to continue operating the new jail. OC residents should oppose this project because a new jail is not something that our community needs, because the facility OCSD proposes will harm the most vulnerable among us, and because it is a foolish investment of public funds.

We do not need a new jail in OC. Expanding the Musick Facility is especially unnecessary when the county’s jail population is at a historic low. The expansion would increase the county jail system’s rated capacity to roughly 6,200 at a time when the average daily population of the jails is down to just 2,800. More than half of the people incarcerated in the county have not been convicted of the charges they are facing, but they remain in custody due to their inability to pay for bail.

Retail sales in Southern California could drop as much as 38% or $264 billion in 2020-21, with the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. Yet the BOS continues to pour discretionary funds into the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD), the county law enforcement agency that oversees the operation of the jails. Discretionary funds are unrestricted funds, taxpayer money that BOS has the power to spend in our community, on services, care, and support. From 2008 to 2020, the BOS  more than doubled–increasing from $80 million to $159 million–the amount of discretionary funds it allocates to OCSD.  During this same period, the OC Health Care and Social Services agencies saw reductions in their discretionary funding. Given these funding decisions, it isn’t surprising that OCSD experienced a 40% increase in mental health cases since 2015. Currently, 30% of people incarcerated in OC jails require various levels of mental health services. When OC supervisors defund public health and social services while simultaneously increasing funding for the Sheriff’s Department, they exacerbate the policing and criminalization of public health issues.

Despite the actual needs in our communities, the Orange County BOS continues to line the pockets of the OCSD at the expense of the public. The BOS spends almost 20% of its entire discretionary budget on the OCSD, and 56% of discretionary funds on public “protection” (including OCSD, OC District Attorney’s Office, and Probation). In October 2019, BOS approved $150 million in raises for OC deputy sheriffs, with an additional $48 million per-year in ongoing raises, all paid from county funds that could be used for housing, mental health services in the community, and other community-based services. None of these expenditures include the cost of expanding the Musick Facility or the continued operation of the new mental health jail.

OCSD is not the appropriate agency to provide mental health care to our community, and the new jail will not improve the mental health recovery outcomes for people who are arrested in Orange County. Although OCSD claims that the mental health jail will improve the care that people receive while incarcerated in OC jails, nothing in the new jail’s blueprint indicates that the facility is designed for more compassionate care than they would receive at other OC jails. OCSD’s culture is punitive, not therapeutic. OCSD Deputies working in the jails routinely mock individuals during mental health crises, invite violence as a way to control incarcerated people, restrict access to basic needs including meals and showers, and retaliate, often with violence, against anyone who speaks up. The ACLU of Southern California is currently suing OCSD for its failure to provide basic protections, including soap, disinfectant, and masks, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From 2010 to 2020, seventy-seven human beings died while under the responsibility and custody of OCSD. This year alone, five people have died in OCSD custody to date. In 2018, in a report on preventable deaths in OC jails, an OC Grand Jury found that 44% of jail deaths between 2014 and 2017 could have been prevented with timely and adequate care. In 2019, in a report titled “The Silent Killer,” an OC Grand Jury found that 15 people who died in custody from January 2016 through May 2018 showed evidence of prior cardiovascular history but weren’t provided the basic medical care they needed. In a new jail, the same indifference to peoples’ medical needs–physical and mental–will persist. Jose Armendariz, who is currently incarcerated in an OC jail, explains that building new jail beds won’t improve the care that incarcerated people can access.

Jails are punitive, not therapeutic, and a new jail will not improve the lives of mentally ill community members.Putting money into jails instead of community care wastes taxpayer dollars. Every dollar spent in a jail is a net loss for our county, while every dollar spent in community mental health care returns $4 on the investment. Jail traumatizes the incarcerated person and provides them none of the tools or support they need to reenter society successfully. It tears apart families and prevents people from being self-supporting. It is difficult to find work or housing once a person has been convicted of a crime. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states that individuals with mental illness get worse, not better, in jails. High recidivism rates show that jails do not improve a person’s life outcomes: 32% of people incarcerated in an Orange County jail will be rearrested within three years of release. Mental health care is a better investment than more jail beds because mentally stable people contribute to healthy economies rather than getting caught in the costly criminal justice system.

The new jail is an unjustifiable expense when OC residents face unprecedented financial insecurity and a looming recession. Residents of Southern California need the money that the BOS is pouring into OCSD in our communities. Wasting $180 million in state funds and more than $170 million in local dollars to expand and operate a jail that has been vacant for close to a year in the middle of a pandemic is irresponsible and unethical.

Sarah Kahn is a member of Transforming Justice Orange County, the founder of Free Verse Project and a third-year law student at UCI.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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