"First, Do No Harm" -- A Physician's Demand to Stop the Building of a New Jail in Santa Clara County

Editor's Note:

As a physician who has practiced in urgent care for 15 years at Santa Clara Valley Medical, Dr. Zeiger has seen trauma, pain, and the immediate needs of the community. He describes incarceration as a public health threat, and gave the following speech at the Nov.12th SURJ press conference in front of the jail, calling for care not cages.

First, do no harm. As a physician, my first responsibility as I try to care for people, is to ensure that my actions do not cause harm. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds. We need to regularly assess the evidence to see which interventions are truly beneficial and which end up causing harm. Many of the treatments I learned decades ago have since been proven ineffective or even harmful, and it can be hard to keep up with the rapidly changing science.

We have been incarcerating people in this jail and others for a long time. We are taught that this intervention is needed to ensure community safety. However, the evidence is clear. Incarceration does not actually make communities safer. Just like outdated medical interventions, we now understand that incarceration actually causes harm, by separating children from their parents, making it harder for people to find housing or feed themselves, and thus making crime more—not less—likely.

In the last hundred years, life expectancy has increased dramatically because of public health advances like widespread access to clean water. We should be proud of how far we’ve come. On the other hand, incarcerated people experience a 2-year decline in life expectancy for each year they are incarcerated. And people with one immediate family member who has ever been incarcerated lose 2.6 years of life expectancy.

I’ve known for many years that incarceration worsens health outcomes. But it was not until last summer’s uprisings that I learned how connected I am, as a white person, to the systems that continue to cause these harms. Each of us with privilege is responsible for addressing these harms, including every member of our Board of Supervisors.  

In June of 2020, the Board passed a resolution in solidarity with Black Lives Matter in which they committed to dismantling systems of oppression. It is now time for the Board to put real anti-racist policy change behind their words in that resolution. I specifically want to repeat what my own Supervisor, Joe Simitian, quoted just two months ago, from poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”

Here, where Main Jail South once stood, we have a giant open pit, like a wound. Instead of filling it with another jail that disproportionately harms our Black and Brown neighbors, we need to invest in services that create real community safety.