Recently, we learned of a hunger strike in the Santa Cruz County main jail. Due to intolerable conditions, nine men awaiting trial started a hunger strike on Nov. 8. Five remained on hunger strike for nearly a month. Their demands?
• That jail staff treat them with dignity
• An effective process for dealing with detainee complaints
• Affordable commissary goods and communication with loved ones
• Security that correspondence with legal counsel remains confidential
When we read detainee Jason Cortez’s plea, published Dec. 3 on Lookout Santa Cruz, we recognized with a deep sadness the broken system described in the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury report on jails entitled “Envisioning the Future of our Jails: We Continue to ‘Kick The Can,’” released in August 2023.
Jason Cortez has been in pre-trial detention—meaning he has been charged but not convicted of any crime—for close to five years. According to the California Board of State and Community Corrections data from 2022, about 80% of the more than 300 people in Santa Cruz County’s adult facilities are unsentenced, or in what is called pre-trial detention.
In Cortez’s words: “Long gone are the days of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ in Santa Cruz County.”
Most of those in pre-trial detention are there because they can’t afford bail, and incarceration compounds economic problems by leading to people losing jobs, getting evicted and having children taken away. According to the Civil Grand Jury report referenced above, a large number of those inside our jails are unhoused, and more than half have mental health diagnoses. Our tax dollars are used to criminalize and warehouse people who are poor, unhoused and living with mental health issues.
We can do better. We must do better.
Research shows that jails are harmful and traumatic for incarcerated people, often causing or exacerbating mental health issues. Cortez describes feeling powerless, provoked and belittled by staff, his complaints ignored. He describes people inside on low-level offenses being put into “ad-seg” or administrative segregation, what is more generally called solitary confinement, without clear reason.
Research also shows that jails do not effectively reduce violence in our communities, and that there are more effective ways to reduce and prevent crime. We must remember that those in custody will be released back into our community, too often without basic supports like housing and healthcare; this is setting them up for failure. Currently in our county 60% of people released find themselves back in jail; this highlights a waste of public spending on a broken system.
Our county jails have been too long behind a curtain, hidden and forgotten by most community members. People in custody are stigmatized as unworthy and bad, treated with indifference and disdain. We must challenge the stereotypes and grapple with root causes of why people cause harm. We must open our eyes and hearts to what is going on inside and push at the county and state levels for change.
We need to end cash bail, where a judge sets an amount of money that somebody can pay to be released from jail. Cash bail favors people with money, and keeps people who cannot pay bail in jail, even if they haven’t committed a crime. We must also end the practice of exorbitant canteen mark-ups and communication fees.
We must fully support and expand alternatives to incarceration and restorative justice programs. We need 24/7 culturally appropriate mental health services, and we need adequate housing and long-term solutions to our county’s housing crisis. We need to prioritize full funding to programs that help people coming out of jails succeed, programs addressing substance abuse disorder and mental health problems, job training and education.
The recent Civil Grand Jury report on jails explains that Sheriff Hart is asking our county for approximately $200 million to construct another jail facility. The report argues that this shouldn’t be considered before programs that address the root causes of incarceration are fully funded. We fully agree with their conclusion.
We are talking with our electeds about these issues and encourage everyone to do the same. We can’t keep turning away.
This column was written by SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) Santa Cruz County members Susan Kohen, Pam Sexton and Erin Wood. Their opinions are their own and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.