Richmond Leaders View Jail Expansion Plan as a ‘Slap in The Face'

The protracted fight between the city and county over a jail expansion continued Tuesday.

Richmond’s fight to prevent a $95 million jail expansion at the West County Detention Facility continued on Tuesday, with the City Council authorizing an opposition letter to be sent to the state board that has the power to approve funding for the project.

Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay will now draft the letter and send it to the California Board of State and Community Corrections, which must grant $70 million in order for the expansion to move forward. The letter could hurt Contra Costa County's chances at securing funding by making its application less competitive. 

At a meeting earlier this month, the county's Board of Supervisors approved Sheriff Dave Livingston's proposal asking the state for the funds, despite fierce opposition from Richmond residents who said the expansion is a poor use of more than $25 million in county resources and will add to a “culture of mass incarceration.” 

“It’s kind of like a slap in the face to us,” said councilmember Melvin Willis, who put the item on Tuesday’s agenda. "So I wanted to make sure that the city makes the opposition to this jail expansion known to the people who are supposed to be granting out these funds, to give us an opportunity to stop it in its tracks.”

The expansion plan proposes adding close to 120,000 square feet to the Richmond jail, including space for 400 beds and child visitation, re-entry and rehabilitation centers. If funding is granted, the Richmond facility will be able to house high-risk inmates currently incarcerated at the overcrowded Martinez jail.

Those who oppose the expansion have poined to other ways to reduce overcrowding, such as severing the sheriff's lucrative contract with Immigrations Customs Enforcement. Livingston is slated to meet with immigrant advocates on Thursday to discuss fears and concerns about the collaboration, and a press conference will be held afterwards. 

Richmond leaders have successfully lobbied against the jail expansion in the past and seem committed to repeating those efforts this time around. In 2015, the city filed a court petition to contest the expansion’s Environmental Impact Report, a move Livingston has credited with torpedoing the deal. Legal challenges can detract from a point score the state uses evaluate each application.  

“A lot of our people out here in the community are suffering,” Willis said, when explaining why he opposes the project. "For me, saying 'Yes' to this jail expansion is saying that it’s okay to mass incarcerate our community members when a lot of people there have probably served their time and do not need to be in jail to begin with.” 

Despite an overwhelming number of Richmond residents voicing opposition to the expansion at past meetings, several others spoke in support of the project. Many cited deteriorating conditions in the Martinez jail, particularly for inmates who suffer from mental health conditions.

“Do you really know what it’s like for a (person with mental health conditions) in jail?” Duane Chapman, who serves on the county’s Mental Health Commission, asked the board. “If you’ve never been to jail you don’t know what’s going on. If you don’t have any relatives there, you don’t know what’s going on.” 

Chapman said he’s going to “keep pushing” for better services within the jail, and noted that he would be writing a letter to the board in support of the sheriff’s proposal.

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