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By J. Samuel Diaz                        Follow East Palo Alto Today on
East Palo Alto Today                      Facebook    Twitter         Blog    
Wednesday, September 12, 2012            
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It was sad to learn that Best Buy had decided to close its East Palo Alto store. It had been one of my favorite places to shop for electronic goods and had attracted many buyers who, after shopping there, would visit the smaller, neighboring stores as well.

It made a great anchor store for that reason.  And now I look at the vacant building and wonder if it could become San Mateo County’s premier library.

Fabled library of Alexandria
After realizing East Palo Alto has plenty of merchant stores, I began to wonder what the fabled library of Alexandria must have been like.  In its time, it was one of the greatest learning places, located in the land of the Egyptian pharaohs.

And then I recalled the learning centers the Moors established in al-Andalus. Who cannot remember those centers that united peoples of different faiths? Alas, they also fell into ruin after the Iberian Peninsula was united and the remnants of their knowledge and books transported to the Italian Peninsula where the Renaissance launched soon afterward.

What made the legacy of these fabled places so great and enduring was their thirst for knowledge and for tolerance rather than intolerance.  The legacy they left us lasts even to this day.

Today’s legacy
Today we find ourselves living in a new dark age, where learning is no longer promoted, where freedoms are limited and where the poor and under-represented have become the targets of persecution and intolerance.  Here in San Mateo County, we are told endlessly that it is a foregone conclusion the new county jail will be built.  The construction cost would be $150,000,000 and the annual maintenance would be $40,000,000.

Yes, it is difficult to read that a foregone conclusion will cost us county residents one hundred fifty million dollars to build the monstrosity and forty million dollars in annual maintenance costs.  It doesn’t really seem too distasteful until you realize that the existing county jail was built some twenty years ago because the old jail was overcrowded.  And twenty years later, we have managed to overfill the current county jail beyond its capacity.  This shows a lack of foresight and perhaps a willingness to fill up the empty space with folks who usually would not be in jail.  New prisoners are needed in the same way that public school students are needed to attend school: The county collects money from them being there!

New solutions needed for today’s problems
And so we find ourselves asking why it is that we need to have a new county jail built when the existing one has no structural problems.  Perhaps what we need to do is take a step back and look at the problem from another angle.

When we can do that, we can find new solutions to old problems.  We also need to start asking our elected county supervisors what they think our county should do and what new ideas they have for improving the human condition for all of our county residents.

When I saw East Palo Alto was fielding two candidates for the District 4 County Supervisor seat, I was excited and wanted to learn what ideas they brought to the table.  I was impressed by the ideas revolving around better integration of ex-inmates into society rather than a focus on jailing them again.  Since neither candidate is going to be on the November ballot, I sincerely hope we can field more local candidates in future elections.

So then, how do we get new ideas fielded so that our elected county supervisors start thinking about better alternatives?  What would it take for them to listen to the periphery residents in Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and towns surrounding Half Moon Bay?  Would they and other smaller towns benefit from a bigger jail?  And how could we get more residents to vote in our local elections with even more fervor?

What does a new jail offer to our society?
Honestly, I cannot think of any benefits a new county jail can offer to society.  I think of the hundreds of paroled inmates who are returned to jail for minor offenses.  I think of the way parolees are ignored and marginalized and not allowed to reintegrate into society.  It’s no wonder many ex-inmates simply return to the vices that landed them in jail the first time: Because it’s the easiest and perhaps only road left for them to take.

I then think about how undocumented folks are being randomly caught and jailed too.  It blew me away when I read in the EPA Today how “The probation department in San Mateo County is nevertheless choosing to turn over our community’s young people to ICE, resulting in San Mateo County having the second highest referral rate of youth in jail in all of California.”  So our county is second in helping to criminalize, jail and deport youth in all of California?  Even with the president’s new statement that undocumented folks under 30 years of age will no longer be deported, that still leaves a lot of individuals who will get jailed for months until they are deported.  And, yes, our county will receive federal funds for the entire time those poor souls are jailed in our county’s jail.

Sadly, those folks’ lives just waste away in jail and, rather than help them become better people, we turn our backs, while their mental and physical health declines, their hearts harden and their faith vanishes.  So is that how we, as a society, benefit from building and staffing a larger jail?  And yet that is the legacy we condemn many to in our efforts to criminalize more and more of our poor and most under represented residents.

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