County Leader, Activists to Host Forum on Richmond Jail Expansion

Activists opposing a $95 million plan to expand the Richmond jail will meet with supporters of the project for a question-and-answer forum on Saturday, an event that both sides hope will ease tensions between the two groups and bring clarity to a polarizing issue in the East Bay community.

The event is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at Our Saviors Lutheran Church in Lafayette. Contra Costa County Supervisor Candace Andersen, who favors the expansion, will be taking questions, as will community activist Claudia Jimenez and immigration attorney Ali Saidi, who oppose the project. Gubernatorial Appointee AnaMarie Avila Farias will moderate the discussion. 

Topics will include the fraught relationship between the immigrant community and the Sheriff's Office, and ways in which the expansion could potentially contribute to racial disparities in the county’s justice system, according to organizers. Activists say it’s a last-ditch effort to appeal to Andersen, who has been a staunch supporter of Sheriff David Livingston’s plan to expand the jail. 

The sheriff’s plan, which the Board of Supervisors approved in a 4-to-1 vote in February, is dependent upon a $70 million state grant and adds close to 120,000 square feet to the jail. It will cost the county $25 million, and an additional $5 million per year to operate. The Board of Supervisors also signed off on a $33 million project for a new administration building for the sheriff, a move that some critics have accused of monopolizing an already tight county budget. 

“It’s going to use funds that could otherwise be used to alleviate the problems stemming from racial disparities,” said Julie Davis, who is on the planning committee for Saturday’s event. “All of that money could be better used for services in the community.” 

The Sheriff’s Office, which will not have a representative at Saturday’s event, has argued that the expansion plan will ease overcrowding and improve mental health services for jail inmates. A representative for Andersen said she continues to approve of the expansion plan on the basis of improved services, despite State Sen. Nancy Skinner putting pressure on county leaders to retract their support.

Andersen's representative also denied reports that the Sheriff's Office was using a significant portion of the county's budget for unecessary expenditures.

“(Supervisor Andersen) continues to view this as an additional way to help the mentally ill who are cycling through our jail system, and to provide enhanced services to reduce recidivism for those inmates who currently cannot be housed at the West County Detention Facility,” said Gayle Israel, the supervisor's chief of staff. 

Critics counter that overcrowding could be reduced in other ways, such as releasing nonviolent offenders or severing the sheriff’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in which 200 beds are leased to the federal immigration agency. They have also accused the sheriff of retaliating against cities that don’t support the expansion, such as El Cerrito. 

“There are already services that are missing — services for seniors, services for veterans, services for folks who were previously incarcerated,” said Tamisha Walker, a community advocate with the Safe Return Project. “True public safety is providing services for those who are in the margins of society.”

The Board of State and Community Corrections is expected to announce grant recipients in June.

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