Santa Cruz County’s Main Jail was at capacity the day it opened in 1981. 

In years since, the jail has been so overcrowded, that at times, it has housed over 500 incarcerated individuals – despite only having beds for 319. Problems including overcrowding, maintenance failures, staffing shortages and safety issues have led many to believe its 42-year lifespan has come to an end.

Within the last year, leaders from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office have been spearheading discussions with the county administrator’s office on the construction of a new Main Jail, potentially located at the site of the current Rountree Medium Facility. While an exact budget has not been established, the Santa Cruz Grand Jury estimates the project could cost up to $200 million. 

“You have people locked in a tight facility that does not have a lot of programs to offer and does not have any space for real physical activity,” said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart. “The jail was built at a different time, at a different era of the criminal justice system.” 

Current Condition of The Main Jail 

Each year, the Santa Cruz Grand Jury investigates each correctional facility in the county and summarizes their findings in an annual report. The decaying conditions of Santa Cruz County’s Main Jail have been reflected in reports going back years. 

In the 2021-2022 report, Justice in Jails, findings summarized issues with management, extreme staffing-shortages, lack of resources and oversight, and frequent equipment failures. The report also found high rates of inmate violence, sexual assault and death as a result of suicide, violence, overdose, and health complications. 

When asked to describe the current condition of the main jail, Civil Grand Jury foreperson Kim Horowitz said “one word” came to mind: “dungeon-like.” 

In addition to structural issues and recurrent maintenance problems, the Main Jail’s limited spacial capacity restricts the amount of care provided to those experiencing mental or physical illness.

There are currently 10 rooms inside the Main Jail’s medical unit, with 110 people on drug and health alerts. Some suffer from cancer, diabetes, or liver problems while others struggle with mental illness and substance use. There is also a significant elderly population. 

“In a modern facility, you would have a medical wing that would take care of people, and facilities that would provide access to a lot of services,” said Sheriff Hart. “In this Main Jail right now, there’s no place to offer anything like that.”

Part of the discussion surrounding the cost-effectiveness of building a new Main Jail includes the benefit of constructing the facility on the Rountree’s land. Since the area around it is already owned, it would cut expenditures associated with acquiring a new property. 

Rehabilitation over Incarceration

Despite the reduction, estimates from the Santa Cruz Grand jury suggest the construction of the new jail could still cost around $400,000 per bed – money that some argue could benefit other causes.

“Our community-based organizations are drastically underfunded,” said Santa Cruz County Public Defender Heather Rogers. “We don’t have enough housing, we don’t have enough beds for mental health and substance use treatment. I think before we talk about a new jail, we need to talk about investing in restorative justice diversion.”

Rogers also described how many people are driven into the criminal legal system due to mental health and substance use disorders, which needs more attention in the carceral system.

The 2022-2023 Grand Jury Report, Envisioning the Future of Our Jails, described the Main Jail as the largest mental health holding in Santa Cruz County. 40 percent of inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness, 65 percent have an active Substance Use Disorder (SUD), and 20 percent were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their crime. 

Within the Santa Cruz county correctional system, 60 to 65 percent of inmates return to custody within three years on new charges. 

Gina Dent and Rachel Nelson, co-directors of the Visualizing Abolition Project and professors at UC Santa Cruz, have spoken to some of these inmates face-to-face.

They recently visited some of the women in the Main Jail and Blaintree Facilities; there, the women shared their experiences about how they ended up in the carceral system and what support they need. Much of what they discussed was childcare, safe housing, and a way to be reintroduced into the community upon release.

“If as a society, we would use our resources to provide more exciting educational opportunities earlier on, create safer housing, make education around gender, sexual violence, immigration, and anti-racism, we would go a long way to solving problems,” said Dent. “[Problems] that we are not solving everytime we invest more dollars into bigger and more secure prisons.”

Both Dent and Rogers emphasized the “life-changing” effects $150-200 million could create if funneled toward social services like education, child-care, housing, and more. 

As discussions ramp up surrounding the best way to serve the incarcerated community in Santa Cruz, Heather Rogers ultimately contested the separation between those petitioning for community-based programming and those petitioning for the new jail.“All of these problems exist together and I don’t want it to become an ‘us versus them’ dichotomy,” said Rogers. “It makes sense for all the stakeholders to come together and say ‘how can we together work towards decarcerating this community and keeping people safe?’”