SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Nearly three years after California’s controversial prison realignment plan went into effect, Santa Clara County officials have approved a jail study and needs assessment they hope will result in more improvement funding.
The Santa Clara County Jail system is home to a growing number of inmates with various gang affiliations and health issues, and officials worry the existing jails are not suitable for their needs or security. The Santa Clara Board of Supervisors voted to dedicate $500,000 — made available through a state trust — to an assessment that will review the jails’ current capabilities and future needs. According to Gary Graves, the county’s chief executive officer, the findings of this study may be used as the basis for future state funding and jail improvement applications.
Santa Clara County jails now house many inmates convicted of lower-level felonies and parole violations, due to California Gov. Jerry Brown's 2011 prisoner realignment plan. Under the plan, newly convicted low-level offenders, without current or prior serious or violent offenses, stay in county jail to serve their sentence. A November assessment placed the county’s jail population at just over 4,000 inmates, nearly 700 of which were diverted from state facilities as part of the realignment plan.
As a result, the inmate population in Santa Clara is now older, with a greater incidence of chronic illness, mental health issues and gang affiliations and officials are concerned about keeping pace with new demands. According to Graves, the county's jails are "developing based on the realities of realignment.” "We want to study this with current information,” he said. “We have years of experience with the old style."
As the total jail population continues to climb, recent counts also put the percentage of high-security inmates at 43 percent higher than just over a year ago, with 30 percent more inmates charged with murder. In keeping with these higher-level offenses, the average sentence at Santa Clara County Jail has also increased from roughly 90 to 120 days to two to four years.
Meanwhile, Santa Clara correctional staff is also managing a sharp increase in aging and mentally ill inmates. Roughly 25 percent more inmates are requiring daily medication to manage their various conditions, and the jail now houses many inmates over age 55 who also suffer from age-related needs and physical disabilities.
The main jail, which spans two decades-old structures, also struggles to maintain safety and order. The facility that houses the 100 maximum-security level inmates in particular lacks many modern security features and amenities. Combined with the jail’s increasing problem with gang activity, requiring jailers to keep rival members separated within the facility, increases the chances for violence. Reports indicate acts of violence against facility staff have increased noticeably since realignment, up from 10 over a six-month period in 2012 to 17 in the same time frame in 2013.