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‘Smoke and mirrors’: $81M allocation for Santa Rita jail expansion sparks community controversy

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SEPTEMBER 15, 2023

Various community organizations have expressed concerns over $81 million of funds allocated for mental health expansions at Santa Rita jail.

Organizations include the Care First Community Coalition, Restore Oakland and the Interfaith Coalition for Justice in our Jails

According to Lt. Tya Modeste, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, funds will be spent on “cell softening” or making incarceration facilities more therapeutic in appearance. They will also be incorporating office space for more clinicians and providing educational spaces and services for those in jail who have mental health concerns.

Modeste said discussions of jail expansion began in 2015 when the California Board of State and Community Corrections recommended that Alameda County receive $54 million to expand listed services. The amount has since increased because of a consent decree, she said.

Myrna Schwartz, chair of the mental health group the Interfaith Coalition for Justice in our Jails, or ICJJ, said her organization is concerned with the usage of Santa Rita as a mental health facility. She alleged that Santa Rita has long had difficulty hiring mental health staff, and is allegedly building offices for people they have not yet hired.

“We have this horrible vicious cycle where people are brought to the jail with mental illness; the jail is absolutely incapable of helping people to get well — it always has been — no amount of money is going to change that, and they come out in many cases sicker than they went in, more vulnerable than they went in,” Schwartz alleged.

ICJJ Chair Richard Speiglman said the money should be directed to other places in order to keep people out of jail. He added that the county’s psychiatric facilities, such as the John George Psychiatric Hospital, are allegedly overcrowded and unable to keep people for care as long as is needed. Speiglman said many people go from Santa Rita to places such as John George.

Schwartz said the Board of Supervisors for Alameda County adopted a “Care first, jails last” resolution in May 2021 and alleged that they are not following through on policy promises made in the agreement.

She further alleged that the jail expansion was put on hold as per the request of the ongoing mental health task force appointment by the board. Schwartz added that some of the co-authors of the resolution are now leading the Care First Community Coalition.

Joy George, Restore Oakland Healing Justice campaigner, said this expansion spending sets a “dangerous precedent” by trying to treat mental illness in jails such as Santa Rita rather than in the community.

“The Board of Supervisors is not prioritizing community safety or listening to family members who are clearly naming that their loved ones with serious mental illness would avoid incarceration if they received adequate care in the community,” George alleged in an email. “Instead, the BOS is playing a dangerous game of smoke and mirrors.”

She added that it is less expensive to fund mental health resources in communities before those with a mental illness face law enforcement, and that individuals struggling with mental illness should have access to housing.

George suggested reforms to behavioral healthcare departments, including well-paid staff and full-funded service partnerships.

Modeste recognized a disproportionate number of people with mental health concerns or past mental health concerns are incarcerated and the county believes in the importance of having a “robust” mental health services program.

“We can all agree (that) the more significant issue of a lack of long-term psychiatric care facilities in the community is a substantial issue that falls on facilities like the Santa Rita Jail,” said Modeste in an email. “Some groups oppose this plan, and we fully understand why. The greater need is in the community, not incarceration for those who rightfully should not be in the Santa Rita Jail.”

Contact Ella Carter-Klauschie at 


SEPTEMBER 15, 2023