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OP-ED: Jail will not bring long-lasting safety
September 20, 2012, 05:00 AM By Manuel La Fontaine and Sharifa Wilson

Manuel La Fontaine

"Jail did not help in my recovery or rehabilitation. If anything, it made it difficult for me to keep my family intact,” said Pam Strong, an East Palo Alto resident at a recent San Mateo County Board of Supervisors meeting challenging the proposal to build a new jail. "Instead of providing me with treatment for my drug addiction and mental health issues, they locked me up.”

An expensive new jail is not an answer to the issues raised by Strong. Many San Mateo county residents already know this. Sheriff Greg Munks and District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe insist that millions of dollars toward people’s failures and a new jail (and their departments) is exactly what we need. We need to shift from failed measures that distort the nature of violence in our communities and move toward initiatives that heal and restore dignity.

Sheriff Munks stated, in a video interview in the Peninsula Press in June 2011, that 70 percent of people arrested had substance abuse problems, more than 22 percent had mental health issues, and more than 60 percent were unemployed. Jail cannot solve any of these underlying problems and, in fact, the trauma of living in a cage often makes them worse. As the county’s Health System wrote in response to the jail planning, "The research evidence is strong that despite the best treatment that can be provided while people are in custody, people with mental illness do not get better in institutions, particularly in jails, which tend to be difficult even for people without mental illness.”

The incarceration of Pam Strong was not a question of public safety, but rather a reactionary, misunderstood response by people who don’t understand the underlying conditions people are facing in poor and marginalized communities. Racial profiling, immigration checkpoints and harassment of youth in East Palo Alto, Redwood City and Daly City, has led to the increased fear of law enforcement, constant confrontations with police and arrests of many young people of color. The communities who bear the brunt of these problems are deeply impacted by county budget cuts and underfunded programs, and are further destabilized by having people cycle in and out of jail.

People who are incarcerated are treated in a way that is meant to take away their dignity — and that is not a problem that can be solved by a new jail design; it’s a problem of the power relations between guards and prisoners. Perhaps you think people who commit a "crime” don’t deserve to be treated with dignity. But how are people going to transform themselves if they experience violence in a place that is supposed to be correcting their behavior? When people get sentenced by a judge, they do not get sentenced to physical or psychological beatings. However, when some people decide to act out due to mental health issues, or to demand to be treated with respect, they are retaliated against. "Since incarcerated people are considered the ‘bad guys’ and expendable, the majority of correctional officers act, at best with indifference and callousness, and at worse, with abuse and impunity towards those they deem "non-conformist,’” said Dorsey Nunn, a formerly-incarcerated person from East Palo Alto at the press conference outside the recent BOS meeting. "But this is something that is hidden from the public lens by law enforcement, career politicians and mainstream media.” Jails are not places for transformation, and they are not social service providers; they are simply the places we lock away the people we scapegoat for systemic social and economic problems that we haven’t solved.

Besides the sheriff, district attorney and some county officials, there is little support for the jail. Just this week, 150 people turned out to a 9 a.m. weekday San Mateo County Board of Supervisors meeting to demand they cancel funding for the jail. Shouldn’t the public have input when considering huge decisions like building and funding a new jail? Why not explore alternatives to incarceration before investing in an expensive project that has long-lasting implications? We need to address overcrowding by reducing the amount of people we are sending to jail in the first place. There are solutions; we can release people who can’t make bail on their "own recognizance” (OR), reduce bail and expand substance abuse and mental health programs. We all want safe and healthy communities. And we all want justice. However, it must be applied universally across all neighborhoods, regardless of race, gender or class. We welcome all our neighbors to join us in building a safer San Mateo County.

Manuel La Fontaine is a native Daly City resident, and a staff with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and a member of California United for a Responsible Budget. Sharifa Wilson is a resident and former mayor of East Palo Alto.

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