July 23, 2024
Milpitas mayor, vice mayor tour Elmwood, main jail.

Santa Clara County Sheriff Robert Jonsen and Assistant Sheriff David Sepulveda took local leaders on tour of the Elmwood Correctional Facility and the county’s main jail, respectively located in Milpitas and San Jose, on July 25.

The delegation, which included Santa Clara County Supervisor Otto Lee, Milpitas Mayor Carmen Montano and Milpitas Vice Mayor Evelyn Chua. learned about the Santa Clara County’s job training, educational programs and wraparound services for those in custody to help ensure successful re-entry.

The Santa Clara County Jail system has an average of 3,000 people in custody on any given day, 2,300 in the Elmwood campus alone. The path of any inmate in the Santa Clara County jail system always starts at the intake ramp in an underground tunnel at the main jail, where arresting officers walk detainees in the building for the intake process.

The main jail’s population primarily consists of unsentenced persons charged with serious felonies and some misdemeanor arrestees who have circumstances requiring them to stay in custody. Only about 9% of the total population is made up of sentenced individuals.

The intake team processes and triages arrestees who range from being criminally psychotic to having committed an impulsive theft or failed to show up in court.

Determining where to house inmates starts with an objective inmate classification system. A medical assessment ensures inmates’ immediate needs are addressed before they go through fingerprinting, a body scanner, a second more in-depth medical and mental health assessment and a classification assessment.

As they progress going deeper in the building, the intake team divides them by group characteristics such as gender, criminal charges, pretrial or sentenced status. Different areas in the intake lobby are used for DUIs, general population and protective custody cases, while unstable inmates are typically kept in holding cells.

In more recent years and with the safety of the inmates and staff in mind, data-driven tools have also been used to assess individual risk factors. Criminal history and other individual factors are also given weight so that offenders with similar risk levels are placed together.

The intake process typically takes five to eight hours to complete, including dressing the inmates. High-security detainees are then moved into the main jail, which currently houses about 700 detainees, while low to medium security inmates are transported to Elmwood.

Inmates are escorted to their cells in the main jail via an elevator with no buttons. Officers use sign language through the security cameras to communicate with the deputy operating the control panel, in charge of all movements and all doors in the building.

Facilities, staffing issues

The main jail opened in 1956 with few amenities for inmates. Main Jail North was built in 1986. Both facilities were originally intended for short-term stays: Offenders would only be incarcerated for their adjudication process for a few days, week  or months. Misdemeanor offenders could be sentenced to a maximum of two years. Now, however, the current average stay is closer to 200 days.

The small jails have little natural light, few recreation facilities and very few recidivism reduction programs. Today, up to 40% of the inmates suffer from mental health issues, and the facilities are not suitable to host such a drastically changed incarcerated population.

A third of the inmates are identified as gang members. The violent inmates or those charged with violent crimes are considered high security and require maximum security cells on the fourth and fifth floors. Maximum security was originally designed for two units but now houses five.

All county jails predate the Americans with Disabilities Act and so were not built to current ADA standards, and while much renovation has taken place to update the buildings, there is still work to be done. Most renovations require the closing of cell blocks to safety complete the construction.

In addition to structural inadequacies, the system is facing staffing issues that directly impact the safety of both the inmates and 300 deputies assigned to the main jail, who work 12-hour shifts.

“Communication is our main and best tool” in de-escalating situations before resorting to force, said a deputy during the tour.

City within a city

Elmwood operates as a city within the City of Milpitas and faces the same challenges as the main jail in terms of facility and staffing. In addition, however, the campus consists of more than two dozen buildings that sit on 62 acres, causing staff to spend a lot of time walking from place to place.

Originally founded in 1964, Elmwood is a lower-security facility than the main jail, although it houses most of the female inmates in the county’s jail system.

The Elmwood campus has about 3,800 beds, 2,269 of which were occupied the day of the tour.

Get out of jail early

Elmwood inmates are incentivized to contribute to the jail’s operations by participating in Milestone Credit Program, which reduces their sentence by seven days for every 60 days they work.

Other programs include the College Collaborative System, developed and led by inmate rehabilitation manager Dr. Patrick Marshall. Through this program, Approximately 600 inmates are being given access to post-secondary education, rehabilitation and essential transitional services.

“In order to address the trauma, you have to get rid of the drama,” Marshall said.

Lt. Gurpreet Gill works in tandem with Marshall to ensure that the program meets all the safety and security requirements. Inmates regularly meet for instruction provided by six local community colleges currently offering 40 courses, from general education to career technical education programs.

Sheriff Jonsen said his goal for the program is that “anybody who gets incarcerated has an opportunity to graduate from incarceration.“