Supes approve jail expansion in Richmond, but not funding

- During a raucous, standing room only meeting that lasted several hours, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to approve a proposal to expand a jail in Richmond but did not have the votes necessary to approve county funding for the plan.

Supervisor John Gioia cast the sole dissenting vote against the proposal -- Supervisor Federal Glover was absent for medical reasons.

The vote allows the sheriff's office to apply for a competitive state grant offering up to $80 million to expand treatment and rehabilitation programs, including mental health services, at the West County Detention Facility in Richmond.

Without the vote to appropriate the county's matching contribution, or roughly $10.7 million, the project loses points on its application, diminishing its favorability and competitiveness, according to Sheriff David Livingston.

"Today gets us halfway there," Livingston said. "I would have liked to have the authorization for the matching funds as well. That would have been the perfect, ideal situation but still having three votes to apply is huge and allows me to move forward."

The application is due on Aug. 28 and if approved, the sheriff's office would have to return to the board for the matching community funds.

Gioia voted against the project because he said no funding sources had been identified to support the ongoing operating costs of the new building and reentry programs, which the sheriff's office estimated at roughly $4.4 million, including at least $1.9 million in net new expenses.

"For me, I can't trust that if we are not going to be able to guarantee funding for reentry at a high level, we end up with competition for dollars in future years and a situation where we potentially have space for programs but don't have meaningful programs in that space," Gioia said.

Although Gioia's counterparts on the council supported the plan, saying it would provide much-needed mental health and reentry services to a population that currently has no access to rehabilitation programs, the board needed a four-fifths vote to appropriate the funds. It only needed three votes to approve the grant application.

Meanwhile, an attorney representing the city of Richmond wrote a letter to the board on Monday that outlines deficiencies in the project's environmental impact report, which would allow the city to file a lawsuit against the county.

Sheriff's Capt. Thomas Chalk said the expansion is necessary because the county's only high-security facility in Martinez is overcrowded and offers only independent study, religious services and a library cart to its inmates.

The physical requirements of a high-security facility - having a toilet and sink inside the room, for example - means the sheriff's office cannot simply transfer high-security inmates to the Richmond jail, a medium-security facility, without costly retrofits, Chalk said.

The sheriff's office wants to transfer 416 high-security inmates to a new building within the West County Detention Facility, where they plan to incorporate 31,500 square feet of programming space, including a center where children can visit incarcerated parents.

But critics of the plan, which include a number of representatives from faith-based and community organizations who spoke at length today, cited a national trend to reduce the jail population across the country and condemned the proposal to invest in any new jail space.

Others pointed to the now-shuttered Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo and the understaffing of psychiatric nurses and mental health providers at the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez as critical shortfalls in the county's health care system.

Marie Walcek, a representative of the California Nurses Association, urged the board to think of understaffing at the CCRMC first before funding medical services within a jail.

"On the whole, our nurses in the county health system at CCRMC, our psych ER service is chronically short-staffed," Walcek said. "If we can invest in health services now in the community that are desperately needed...we can reduce our jail population."

Supporters of the proposal said jails had become de facto mental health facilities and the proposed programs would help an underserved population.

Teresa Pasquini, who identified herself as the mother of an adult child who is both incarcerated and suffering from mental illness, urged the supervisors to approve the proposal.

"Nobody despises the criminalization of those with mental illness more than I do," Pasquini said. "I support this proposal because it is a step up from our current state, which is grossly inhumane."

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