Letter: Writer Discusses Contra Costa Jail Expansion, The Conversation We Need

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The following Letter to the Editor was submitted by Judith Tannenbaum

At the Mental Health Panel in Brentwood on May 13, Claudia Jimenez of the Racial Justice Coalition said that if Contra Costa County goes ahead with Sheriff Livingston’s proposal to expand the West County Detention Center, we will have lost the opportunity to engage in a crucial public conversation. This conversation would examine what real public safety looks like, which mental health services are most likely to improve the lives of those who suffer, and how we as a county accomplish both public safety and providing services in a fiscally responsible manner. Jimenez noted that reliance on old solutions – building more jails – shows a lack of creative imagination. She urged us to do better.

Panelist Kimberly Gamboa spoke about the ways jails and prisons are, by their nature, not appropriate settings for mental health help. Kristin Kilian Lobos shared her own experiences, first as a mother, and currently as a student training to be a mental health and substance abuse worker. Both women told moving stories and many in the audience nodded as they listened.

Terry A. Kupers spoke next. Psychiatrist, professor, and author of many professional articles and two books about mental illness and the correctional system, Dr. Kupers has spent most of his career advocating for quality treatment for individuals with serious mental illness who spend time in jails and prisons.

Dr. Kupers noted the crowding and miserable conditions at the Martinez Detention Facility. He said some who support the Sheriff’s proposal do so with the hope that the plan will alleviate these problems. Dr. Kupers was clear: “It will not!”

Dr. Kupers listed what research shows. Here’s what he said in his own words:

  • “Individuals who go to jail with a substance abuse problem come out of jail with the same problem, whereas 80% of individuals who undergo recovery treatment in the community, and complete their treatment program, remain clean and sober after three years.”
  • “Jail is a terrible setting for individuals suffering from serious mental illness (where) the harsh conditions, especially crowding and solitary confinement, greatly exacerbate their mental illness and worsen both their disability and their prognosis.”
  • “The better the quality of the therapeutic relationship with a mental health professional, the more likely individuals with serious mental illness are to adhere to their treatment, remain clean and sober, and thrive. On the other hand, in jail, they are likely to spend most of their time in a single cell by themselves – solitary confinement even though it is not officially called that – and their condition is likely to deteriorate badly.”

Dr. Kupers said, if Contra Costans want to help people in jail who have mental health problems, we need to implement what are called “diversion programs” which involve halfway houses and other community treatments as alternatives to jail time.

In the months leading up to the State’s consideration of the Sheriff’s proposal (which passed the first hurdle at the Board of State and Community Corrections on May 17), there have been many arguments given against expanding the West County Detention Facility:

  • If the Sheriff didn’t have his contract with I.C.E., there would be plenty of room and no need for expansion.
  • A large proportion of individuals in the jail are there only because they cannot afford bail and if we get rid of money bail, we’ll drastically reduce the numbers inside.
  • The Sheriff’s proposal describes only a small number of beds dedicated to intensive mental health treatment and even this small number is subject to downsizing down the road when public budgets are cut.
  • How can our county – which has recently seen the closing of Doctors Hospital – afford to commit $25 million to build the expansion and another $5 million (or more) per year to operate?

In Brentwood, the panel – Dr. Kupers, Kristin Lobos, and Kimberly Gamboa – made an even more fundamental argument: Mental Health programs in prison don’t work.

Duane C. Chapman, Chair of the Contra Costa County Mental Health Commission, has come out in support of the Sheriff’s proposal but he, too, has his doubts and concerns. Like Claudia Jimenez, Mr. Chapman says we need a sincere and serious community conversation, one that includes everyone – residents, state and federal representatives, people from companies making money in Contra Costa – and that looks at the history that got us here. “The first conversation we need to have,” Mr. Chapman said, “is how do we fix a system that’s broken?”

Mr. Chapman said he wants to set up a Town Hall. But, as Claudia Jimenez noted, if the Sheriff’s proposal gets final approval (the BSCC Board votes on June 8 and then the project comes back to our County Supervisors), we’ll have lost the chance for the complicated conversation both Jimenez (who opposes the proposal) and Chapman (who supports it) both say we need.


The following Letter to the Editor was submitted by Judith Tannenbaum. Tannenbaum is a writer and teacher whose books include Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin

Letters submitted may or may not reflect the opinions of eastcountytoday.net and are instead the opinions of the letter author which were submitted for publication. 

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  1. The conversation that’s not being had is that western civilization has already been aware of reliably therapeutic alternatives to jail time, halfway houses, and total-sobriety approaches to mental health problems & addicitions, but due to much of the world’s current puritanical approaches to drug policy, many of those suffering from these various issues will never know the reliably healing potential of many of the earth’s healing psychedelic compounds:

    http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_55f2e754e4b077ca094eb4f0

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/lsd-may-cure-some-addicts/

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