On Monday, May 23, 2016 at 9 a.m. the Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to continue with the Northern Branch Jail. As they are deliberating this critical decision, one so vital to our community on so many levels, I offer this quote, which was cited in a moving testimonial delivered by an inmate named Michael at our most recent Sheriff’s Treatment Program graduation last Tuesday:
“Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, and shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always.” —Yann Martel, Life of Pi
Inmate Michael was one of seven offenders who were graduating after successfully completing the “Thinking for a Change” curriculum. He gave an eloquent, thoughtful, and heartfelt address to the other inmates, custody staff, and STP counselors who were present. He spoke of how and why he was before us that day — the product of a lifetime of poor choices, ingrained beliefs, and bad behavioral patterns of his own design — all of which were rooted … in fear. He publicly accepted responsibility for his past, pledged to be a better person and father, and acknowledged that he had to — and that he would — fight through the darkness of fear for the light to guide him. It is that type of resolve that I am asking the Board of Supervisors to use when deciding the fate of the Northern Branch Jail Project.
Unfortunately, most of those released from our jail are no better prepared to be successful than when they were arrested, and those who are the most at risk — the mentally ill and addicted members of our community — have the most potential to become even more harmful to themselves and others.
As I stood there and listened to that inmate’s powerful words, I thought how we should be offering this extraordinary, life-changing program to all of our high risk inmates, so that they could regain — or perhaps gain for the first time — control over their lives, and become productive, sober, crime-free, tax-paying citizens in the process. After all, the core mission of every correctional facility is rehabilitation.
We have been recognized for our efforts to provide alternatives to incarceration and evidence-based programs that make those released from jail less dangerous. However, the antiquated design of our existing jail only allows us to provide these services to a tiny fraction of our inmates. Without the modern design of the Northern Branch Jail, which allows services including programming to be brought to the inmates without staff-intensive movement, we are hamstrung and cannot succeed in our core mission of rehabilitation.
Building the new jail has another significant benefit as well. It will help us avoid litigation, costly legal settlements, or court-ordered compliances that are likely to result if we don’t adequately address our chronic jail overcrowding problem.
Furthermore, the overcrowded and dilapidated conditions in the existing jail are unsafe and extremely detrimental to our custody staff. How can we effectively recruit sufficient numbers of new staff when all we can offer them is an overcrowded and rundown facility to work in? Completing the Northern Branch Jail Project will place us in a much better position to recruit, hire, and, most importantly, retain competent staff.
The Northern Branch Jail is matched by $80 million in state funds and can ultimately be built using only 22 percent county funds. Any future construction plans would likely require 100 percent county funds for construction of the jail, with no matching funds whatsoever. The current opportunity is almost certainly the best we’ll ever have to build this new and much-needed jail.
So I ask everyone to reflect on inmate Michael’s words. We need to ensure that all the people in our custody have the same opportunity for change. Please ask the Board of Supervisors to boldly take the action that will offer hope to the hopeless, safety to those threatened, and better working conditions to some of our most dedicated and faithful employees. It is time for us to move forward into the light of a brighter future by building the Northern Branch Jail.