San Mateo jail: If land is too toxic for housing, how can a jail go there?

By Manuel La Fontaine and Isaac Lev Szmonko

Special to the Mercury News

Last week the aptly named Chemical Way was cleaned of decades of toxic chemical residue, according to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department.

The site of the proposed new jail was so permeated by volatile organic compounds that the Department of Toxic Substances Control declared the land too hazardous for residential use. Unfortunately, it is still too hazardous to meet residential toxicity standards. The county cleaned it to commercial-level standards, which are lower, presuming that people don’t regularly sleep or eat or spend as much time in commercial settings. But the jail will have people eating and sleeping on site — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

If the jail site isn’t safe for residential use, where most people aren’t home 24 hours a day, it certainly isn’t safe for the people who will be locked inside for months or years at a time.

Perhaps for that reason, the county failed to include a Human Health Risk Assessment, which is used to measure people’s likely exposure to toxic chemicals and whether that level of exposure is safe. Should we infer that the county doesn’t believe jails are residential, or just that the potential health risks to prisoners are not important enough to fully assess?

Black people make up 24 percent of San Mateo’s jail population even though they represent only 3 percent of the county’s population. Similarly, Latinos constitute 35 percent of the jail population but only 26 percent of the

county’s. The disregard for the health and wellbeing of these prisoners is environmental racism. Communities of color suffer the highest rates of unemployment, poverty, health problems, inadequate housing, disenfranchisement and lack of access to education. They are also disproportionately exposed to pollution in places they live.

The county’s attempt to greenwash the jail project with talk of solar panels, water conserving toilets and recycling can’t hide the fact that building new jails and locking up more people is not good for anyone’s environment.

In addition to the harm associated with housing people on contaminated land, mountains of research have proven that imprisonment is bad for mental, physical, family, and community health. As one study says, “The incarceration experience often contributes to a downward cycle of economic dependence, social isolation, substance abuse, and other physical and mental health problems.” In contrast, alternatives that reduce the jail population such as drug treatment, mental health support, affordable housing, education and job placement interrupt these pernicious cycles and build healthier communities.

Healthful alternatives are available. A report from the San Mateo County manager outlines alternatives recommended by the county’s Health System, including expanding existing programs such as residential treatment for mental illness or drug detox, alternative sentencing, mental health programs and re-entry services. The Health System’s detailed recommendations would take three to six months to get up and running, serve 2,100 residents and cost the county $8.38 million a year. The new jail would not open until 2015 and will cost $160 million to build and at least $30 million a year to operate.

Thousands of people have voiced deep concern about construction of a jail. We join them in urging the Board of Supervisors to enact sustainable solutions to the real problems our communities face. It is not too late to stop the toxic jail.

Manuel La Fontaine of Daly City is an organizer with All of Us or None — a Project of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. Isaac Lev Szmonko is a member of Critical Resistance. Both organizations are affiliates of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a statewide coalition to reduce the number of people imprisoned in California. They wrote this for this newspaper.

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