Station Five Hundred – Who Is Santa Clara County’s Future Jail Being Built For, and Where Are They Now?

Editor's Note:

Who are the 500 plus people who they destined to be in this yet to be built jail? Where are they right now in this moment, living their lives not knowing that their futures have been sealed already by these three men of position? What must happen for a Santa Clara child of 2020 to be a caged Santa Clara adult in 2030?

I just watched the HBO sci-fi drama Station Eleven - a time-leaping mini-series of a post-apocalyptic world after a virus wiped out much of humanity. The show jumps back and forth in epochs, depicting the months and days before a virus ravages the planet, and the world born anew after the almost end of humankind. 

It sounds like a dark, perhaps too close to home, premise - but it was so good. I like these narrative styles - the kind where you meet characters in different moments of their timeline, getting to know them as children, and as adults simultaneously, and how the context of how the world unfolds around them dictates what happens in between their life stages.

This device of story-telling makes for compelling fiction, but can also be a prism to see our own realities beyond slivers of the current moment of a timeline.

I thought about this folded timeline approach in our organizing to stop the construction of a new jail in Santa Clara County.

I saw future points in the timeline when Supervisors Lee, Simitian, and Wasserman said in a recent vote that our County must unequivocally build a new “maximum security” jail to hold at least 500 people. That the work of creating this maximum security jail must be started now so it can be erect in eight years or so from now -- regardless of whatever way the world may be like as we approach 2030. Predictive, future setting, policy-creation. Sci-fi.

I wondered, who are the 500 plus people who they destined to be in this yet to be built jail? Where are they right now in this moment, living their lives not knowing that their futures have been sealed already by these three men of position? 

These are not completely fantastical or rhetorical questions, and answers can be located to some degree. We know by the nature of incarceration they will be disproportionately Black, Brown, and from the poorest zip codes of the County.

Competing Timelines
And right now, they may literally be children who will come of age when the new maximum security jail is built to cage them. They may be as young as 10 years old, 4th graders playing four square during recess. They are taking their mask down to smile for class photos, and getting asked from aunties, uncles, teachers, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Some may have already endured tremendous trauma in their young lives, some have had to carry responsibilities only adults should bare, some have faced challenges that would have already broken most grown ups. But both painful and wonderful - a world of firsts awaits them.

Right now, they don’t know that some immemorable bureaucrats from 2022 have sealed their fates without having met them. That while they may dream of being astronauts, artists, or playing in Super Bowls, the mini-series of their future lives juxtaposes that unlimited possibility promised in youth with the absence of the freedom inherent to incarceration.

Youth advocates often talk of breaking the ‘school to prison pipeline’ - the education failures and policing policies targeting youth of color that track them into incarceration. These Supervisors decided to fortify the destination of the pipeline - ensure that what awaits these youth is ready and built for their arrival.

What hubris, even from an elected official, to be so entitled that they feel they can take a future from a stranger. It may be the nature of political decision-making, but it seems more like a God-complex.

In these shows like Station Eleven, they provide windows of the present and future, that look remote, wildly contrasting, from one another, then they backfill the moments in between until all the dots of the timeline are connected and clear. You then understand how the child of the past ends up the adult of the future. What at first seemed improbable, is now understood as inevitable.

So what must happen for a Santa Clara child of 2022 to be a caged Santa Clara adult in 2030? It must have meant that the other actions to prevent that future did not work. It would mean that all the decarceral efforts the County voted on the same day it voted for a new jail failed. That the County making resolutions to challenge systemic racism, to make mental health and substance abuse a public health crisis, the creation of an “Alternative to Incarceration” plan was insufficient, that the larger socio-economic forces that fuel jails were undisturbed. 

And that of course is the absurdity of the Board of Supervisors’ pronouncement on that fateful day, in which they both voted for a jail and for investing in alternatives to jail. They set a course for opposing timelines.

Free Child of 2022 = Caged Adult of 2030
From their respective zoom boxes, on the day of the vote, District Attorney Rosen and Supervisor Wasserman said to overwhelming calls to not build a new jail and to invest in community solutions that, “It doesn’t have to be an either or.” Supervisor Lee repeated this platitude in a letter he sent to explain his vote.

They seemed to want to come off as magnanimous, King Solomon like transcendency to tell the lay people to stop this squabble and elevate above the false construct of a choice. They even held a pregnant pause to give space for the anticipated admiration of their wisdom.

But it makes no sense. The term “alternative” to incarceration, means “instead” of building a jail, not a supplement to building a jail. It’s as if there was a call to fight the climate crisis, and the Board elected to create a taskforce to look into renewable energy sources and build a new coal plant.

In hindsight, the vote to build a jail by the Board of Supervisors was not too surprising to those who follow county politics of this era. Despite the constant chest-thumping of the county being the center of innovation and progress, the political class has remained consistently pedestrian in its thinking.

So they try to keep up with the trends around them, to appear relevant. As communities in Santa Clara County took over the streets in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd, local elected officials stumbled over themselves to appear a part of the call for change. They took knees and photo ops, made resolutions about systemic racism, cloaked themselves as much as possible with the mantle of Black Lives Matter. They added the word “re-imagine” to everything.

It was in that political atmosphere at the end of 2020 that the Board of Supervisors voted to actually stop the building process of the jail they had been planning for years. They were celebrated for departing from a road of incarceration and all that jails represent, and it matched the expectations of the moment.

But as time passed, the energy around a racial reckoning dissipated, and there was no need to change the original plans of building a jail. What was initially thought of as a new political consciousness from elected leaders that could transform the County, turned out to be just hype. Consciousness being a profound, new permanent understanding of the world - hype being a temporal condition that can leave as quickly as it arrived.

Free The Future, Free Us All
Officials in County government simply had put too much time, energy, and resources into this new jail construction (years in the making, started well before the public lynching of George Floyd) - so they were steadfast in demanding its need. So despite the County’s own “community engagement process” overwhelming collective response being to stop the building of a new jail - in the form of surveys, focus groups, in-person gatherings of both the directly impacted and random voters - the Board of Supervisors still voted for the jail. Their incarceration timeline would be restored.

That is what made organizing against this future jail so different as a campaign. There was almost total unanimity from the public to not build a new jail. There were no large pro-jail, oppositional voices, groups or organizations to battle for the Board’s favor. So the community organizing was like shadow-boxing. Going through the actions and physical motions of a campaign – to strike and defend as if an opponent was there - but not actually having one. The only jail advocates was the County government itself - unelected names like County Executive Jeff Smith - who the electeds ultimately deferred to.

And the County Executive Office had already written the script for the Supervisors.  When community members met with Supervisor Lee days before the big vote, he was asked what his position was regarding the proposed jail. He launched into a romantic speech how in a democracy, as the elected leader, he could not make a decision until he had heard from the public. Then on the day of the vote, in which over 150 community members - in one minute intervals - spent hours expressing their call to stop the jail in public comment, he proceeded to read a motion clearly written before the meeting day to go forward with building the jail.

The implicit message of time-jumping narratives is that decisions we make in the present dictate our future. That the difference between a dystopic timeline and one of opportunity is moments before us all the time. That the off ramps from the impending is the one constant. Perhaps a new uprising from the streets, or perhaps a new complexion of elected leaders may represent the detour for this future jail. 

Or perhaps there is a child now amongst us, anonymous, slotted to occupy one of the projected jail beds in 2030, who will lead the bending and breaking of the incarceration timeline. That her defiant life force eclipses the very physics of a determined future plotted by a current political moment lacking of vision and hope. That she frees the future, that she frees us all.