The Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office is one step closer to securing a $70 million state grant for a controversial expansion of the West County Detention Facility in Richmond.
A Board of State and Community Corrections steering committee approved the sheriff's grant application Wednesday in Sacramento. The proposal will now move forward for a full and final vote before the entire board on June 8.
The application seeks $70 million out of SB-844 funding, which is money the state set aside to improve mental health facilities and fund jail construction across California. If approved, the behemoth project — which would add more than 120,000 square feet to the Richmond jail — will cost Contra Costa County $25 million and another $5 million per year to operate.
The Wednesday meeting was flanked with about 30 people from a coalition opposing the expansion, who expressed their concerns about the proposal during public comment. The coalition members, many of whom are Richmond residents, have been protesting and writing opposition letters for months.
“We feel like they didn’t hear our voices,” said activist Claudia Jimenez, who has been a lead organizer with the Services Not Cells opposition campaign. “We spoke, we sent many, many letters, but they didn’t hear us.”
Jimenez and other critics have argued that the expansion is a poor use of scarce county resources. They believe that overcrowding in jails could be addressed by releasing nonviolent offenders, as well as severing the sheriff’s contract with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, in which 200 beds at the Richmond jail are leased to ICE.
Meanwhile, Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston has maintained that the expansion is a crucial step to reduce overcrowding and stop the “double bunking” practice at the Martinez jail, a decrepit facility that is operating at double capacity nearly every day. He said the expansion is ultimately about protecting and providing resources to inmates who are mentally ill.
"Today was a good day for those who care about public safety in Contra Costa County and also want to see treatment for mentally ill offenders as I do," Livingston said in a statement. "The State's Steering Committee saw the value of our jail and mental health treatment project and voted to fund it.”
Livingston also claims that the expansion will not add to the net number of beds at the Richmond jail — a requirement for any jail that leases to outside entities, including ICE, that receives funding under SB 844.
But Jimenez and other detractors are skeptical of that claim, and say the existing ICE contract creates substantial trust issues between the Sheriff’s department and the immigrant community.
The Services Not Cells coalition plans to continue their opposition at the May 24 Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors meeting, and they will also attend the June 8 Board of State and Community Corrections meeting.
“We’re not giving up, not at all,” Jimenez said. “It’s a moral thing. This is about our future and our values.”