Santa Ana’s jail should be closed and repurposed

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. California, of course, is part of the problem. But what if a city in the Golden State had the chance to buck the trend?

This isn’t a hypothetical question.

The city of Santa Ana is at a critical turning point. Next Tuesday, the Santa Ana City Council will decide on the future of its local jail. There’s a lot at stake here, not only because the jail currently operates at an $8.6 million annual deficit, but also because the decision will determine what kind of community the city of Santa Ana wants to be.

We believe Santa Ana should reimagine the use of the jail, repurposing it into something that is a benefit to the community. Residents also have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.

Today, we are releasing a report titled “Rebuilding Trust: A Case Study for Closing and Repurposing Immigration Detention Facilities.”

In it, we investigate human and civil rights abuses at the jail such as excessive force and inadequate medical care. We provide a basic plan for reuse, such as a community-based reentry center. My organization, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), and our partners released this report to help city leaders make an informed decision, especially since they also will be receiving a jail reuse report from Vanir Construction Management, a firm with a track record of turning “jail reuse” possibilities into self-serving jail construction opportunities.

Santa Ana residents have been clamoring for the closure of the city jail for years. Last year, thanks to hard work and effective campaigns, residents won the termination of the city’s contract with Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), after the city voted to become a sanctuary city. This continues to be a significant victory.

However, the city maintains a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to hold people in criminal custody for extended periods of time. The living conditions that individuals incarcerated at the Santa Ana City Jail are forced to endure are at best deficient. Our investigation found a pattern or practice of inadequate medical care, prolonged solitary confinement, inappropriate classifications of people in jail, excessive or inappropriate disciplinary actions, among other things, such as unhygienic food service that can result in the transmission of bacteria or disease.

“I am 62 years old, wheelchaired…with a heart condition, making me easily go into fatal heart attack. [Being] attacked by a taser by your mental [health] staff and your facility employees is a violation…I am being set up to be afraid for my life,” wrote one man in a grievance submitted to jail staff.

Another man wrote, “I was left in SHU [solitary confinement] for longer than 11 months…I experienced audible hallucinations and deterioration of my medical condition. Resulting in muscle atrophy, pain and loss of mobility.”

“After now 6 grievances…you have compromised my constitutional rights to due process by making it impossible to prepare [my legal case] and get any documents,” wrote a woman who had been unable to access the law library.

These poor jail conditions have come at a physical and psychological cost for those locked up. But they also come at a financial cost, leaving the city of Santa Ana vulnerable to lawsuits that could cost the city millions of dollars in order to defend and settle claims against its jail.

The Santa Ana Police Department also uses the jail to book and process people who are arrested in Santa Ana, Fountain Valley, Irvine, and Tustin. Local officials worry that if they close the jail entirely, there will be nowhere to book people arrested in Santa Ana. This concern is unwarranted.  According to local government documents we obtained, only about seven to eight people on average per day are arrested in Santa Ana. The city could explore other options for its booking needs.

This would be preferable to running an $8.6 million dollar annual deficit.  The deficit cannot be attributed to the recent cancellation of the ICE contract because the FY18 deficit represents only a slight increase over past years. Equally important, these deficits are not wholly attributable to the need to repay the outstanding jail debt; in each year for which we have government data, jail-specific revenues have failed to cover the operating costs of the facility.

Simply put, running the jail is not a smart use of taxpayer funds. We have a few solutions to make the most of that money.

If the city were to transition the jail into an urban farm, a shared artist studio, or a community-based reentry center within the coming year, calculations suggest that these uses could defray some of the facility’s outstanding costs, as well as provide a public benefit.

For example, the city could repurpose the jail as a community-based reentry center, which would open up the city to additional grant opportunities. The center could serve people returning home to Orange County from prison and immigration detention. Services and programming that address the varied needs of formerly incarcerated people can better equip them to handle the many challenges they encounter upon release and facilitate the reintegration process.

The city of Santa Ana also could create a Revolving Immigration Bond Fund, sustained by a public/private partnership. One of the main reasons many people languish in detention is because they can’t afford to pay exorbitant bonds. The Bond Fund would then ensure that any resident picked up and detained by ICE would have access to financial support to pay their immigration bond and be reunited with their family.

The city of Santa Ana has a unique opportunity to make things right. It’s time to rectify the toxic environment that the Santa Ana City Jail has created for the community. It’s time to close and repurpose this jail.

Christina Fialho is an attorney and the co-founder/executive director of CIVIC. She is the primary author of the new report.

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