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Controversial half-billion dollar jail contract in Santa Clara County on the chopping block

Santa Clara County is poised to scrap a half-billion dollar construction contract for a new jail and start from scratch, a move that will tack on years to an already delayed project and likely hike costs once more.

County Executive Jeff Smith said Monday he plans to ask the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 30 to drop the $523 million, 499-bed jail contract with Kansas City-based builder J.E. Dunn and put out a bid for a new design to replace Main Jail North, which would be razed as part of the project.

Smith changed course after supervisors complained about the current design for the jail, which was created in 2016. Specifically, he said the blueprints do not offer enough space for mental healthcare and re-entry services. Concerns also were raised over whether the guard posts were safe enough for sheriff deputies.

The development comes after Smith put the J.E. Dunn contract on hold in late June when criminal justice reform activists pointed out that the company had been involved in lawsuits with minority workers and its leadership had made statements against abortion and contraception, actions they argued went against the county’s progressive values in the midst of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The county executive maintained that he’s not abandoning the contract because of the company’s past.

“We looked into” the company’s history, Smith said. “There wasn’t anything that was appropriate to make a decision to not enter into a contract.” Smith said that he estimates the move will delay the overall process by an additional three years and that increased costs are inevitable.

“Any time you delay building, the cost goes up,” said Smith.

Whether the contract will be dumped is likely to depend on Supervisor Otto Lee, who was the swing vote in January when supervisors in a 3-2 decision approved the project to go forward. Lee did not say on Monday where he stands on Smith’s proposal, although the supervisor has long advocated for the county to address mental health issues when it comes to the jail.

“The process for selecting any vendor for any County project needs to be open, transparent and needs to reflect a comprehensive approach to the design to meet the needs of our County,” he wrote in a statement.

Lee joined supervisors Joe Simitian and Mike Wasserman in voting for the jail, while the progressive wing of the board that includes Cindy Chavez and Susan Elllenberg voted against. The future of the jail is also likely to hinge on the upcoming November election; Wasserman is terming out and Chavez is currently in a runoff to become San Jose’s mayor. Those supervisors did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, J.E. Dunn’s Midwest Region President Paul Neidlein said he was “disappointed” to hear about the county executive’s recommendation to drop their contract.

Activists who oppose the jail said Monday that they thought Smith was using the supervisors’ push for a redesign as cover to cancel the J.E. Dunn contract.

“Jeff Smith can spin this however he likes,” said Raj Jayadev, founder of the San Jose-based Silicon Valley De-Bug. “His office was trying to give millions in public money to an extremely problematic, anti-people of color, anti-reproductive rights company. I think this invites a much larger question, not so much should the county move forward with this company, but what allowed the county executive’s office to have the audacity and gall to try and contract with that company. That merits an investigation.”

Plans for a new jail have been on and off the table for years. In 2020, supervisors voted to put a new facility on hold in light of the protests after George Floyd’s murder. But the county executive’s office returned in November to push forward with the jail.

Proponents of the jail argue that the existing Main Jail North is in substandard condition and that a new facility is needed to abide by two federal consent decrees regarding the treatment of inmates that the county is currently under. Opponents argue that the jail would not increase public safety and disproportionately target people of color.

In mid-May, county officials revealed in budget hearings that the price of the jail had jumped from $390 million to $689 million in response to delays and inflation. The new price was later adjusted to just over half a billion.

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