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“They Want to Be Treated Like Men and Women, Not as a Subhuman”

A corrections overhaul sent thousands of inmates to local jails, where some advocates say conditions can be “subhuman.” A panel at Stanford Law School examined potential solutions.

As a community organizer with the criminal justice advocacy organization Silicon Valley De-Bug, Jose Valle helps incarcerated people and their families navigate the justice system. This includes both people in county jails, designed to briefly hold inmates awaiting trial or serving short terms, and in prisons that house people convicted of felonies and sentenced to years behind bars. In recent years, Valle has been hearing a surprising refrain from people being held in California’s Santa Clara County jails.

“All the time we hear these guys telling us, ‘I can’t wait to go to prison,’” he said at a recent event held by ProPublica, The Sacramento Bee and the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School. “I don’t think that’s what realignment was about.”

“Realignment” is a policy passed by California lawmakers in 2011 to address overcrowding in the state’s prisons, under which people newly convicted of nonviolent, non-serious offenses are ordered to serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons.

A ProPublica and McClatchy investigation found that while the prison population has declined, jails have often failed to keep inmates safe. Outdated facilities are ill-equipped to accommodate people serving long sentences, do not have enough staff and lack mental health resources. The problems are compounded by virtually nonexistent oversight. As a result, since 2011, homicides among incarcerated individuals have risen 46% in California’s county jails compared to the seven years before realignment, the ProPublica and Sacramento Bee analysis found.

“Now you have individuals that are asking for more — and not because they’re spoiled or they want luxuries,” Valle said. “They’re asking for more basic human rights behind walls that are, believe it or not, sometimes a little better [in prison]. … They want to be treated like men and women, not as a subhuman.”

Valle joined San Francisco Sheriff Vicki Hennessy and Sacramento Bee reporter Jason Pohl on a panel last week moderated by Stanford Criminal Justice Center executive director Deborah Mukamal. In an introductory summary, ProPublica reporter Ryan Gabrielson explained that problems with California county jails include decrepit facilities that make it very difficult to monitor what’s going on inside cells, homicides carried out without any systems in place to impede them, people at risk for suicide being held in “safety cells” that consist of four walls and a grate in the floor for bodily fluids, and no mental health care.

While California officials created an agency to oversee the jails and revise standards, it has no authority to mandate changes or improve conditions. If the body, called the Board of State and Community Corrections, finds violations at a county jail, the county gets to decide whether to address the issues. “It almost reads more like an invitation than a mandate,” Pohl said. “And that’s coming from the oversight board, which we thought was pretty surprising.”

San Francisco’s county jails, overseen by Hennessy, are not plagued by the same problems as many other jails. Her reforms include pretrial release for people who are accused but not yet convicted to stabilize the jail population, as well as working closely with the Department of Public Health to maintain the community’s standards of both physical and mental health. “The other thing is, in San Francisco, our people are in there mingling with people in jail,” Hennessy said. “They’re not up above in a capsule, so there’s a lot of contact.”

While Hennessy declined to speak for other sheriffs, she said she would welcome a BSCC that had more authority, if lawmakers decided to pursue stronger state oversight. “I’d rather have a state organization do it in a way that’s thoughtful, that holds us to accountable standards, and then gives us the opportunity to correct those standards if we need to.” (While we invited several state lawmakers to join the discussion, they all declined.)

“We come from this old thinking where, because you did something wrong, you’ve got to pay for it and have the worst experience possible,” Valle said. “And, somehow, because you have the worst experience possible, you’re going to have an epiphany and change. That might happen for some people, but the numbers obviously don’t add up to that.”

Valle, however, sees an opportunity for change. “This is a great time period to say: ‘You know what, maybe we shouldn’t put people in the hole. Maybe we can look at incarceration differently. Maybe there’s a different way.’”

Watch the Full Discussion

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