Officials in Santa Clara, Calif., voted Oct. 18 to seek a consultant to “refresh” the requirements for construction of a replacement county jail and to conduct community engagement rather than starting construction with the lone shortlisted contractor, JE Dunn Construction Co.

The Santa Clara Board of Supervisors initially approved a program to replace the county’s aging Main Jail North in 2016. Dunn was the only firm to submit a final proposal in response to a 2020 RFP to build a replacement jail.

That plan languished, but when officials began moving again this year to replace the jail, Santa Clara staff re-engaged Dunn to continue working off the prior response, Paul Neidlein, president of Dunn, said via email.

In May, Dunn submitted an updated design-build proposal for a 286,374-sq-ft secured treatment center with more space for programs and medical and mental health services than the current facility, county records show. 

“We all put a considerable amount of time and effort into working closely together to develop a cost-effective approach to the design and construction of the facility that incorporated scope changes,” Neidlein said.

The result was a 100% schematic design and detailed pricing.

County staff had recommended the board of supervisors award a $533.8-million contract to Dunn for the project rather than re-soliciting proposals, noting the volatility of the construction market, records show. However, county supervisors raised concerns about costs and local criminal justice reform advocates opposed the plan. Critics of the plan also raised the issue of Dunn’s  past employee disputes and its advocacy, as an employer that provides medical benefits to its staff, in the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby birth control case.

Months of Delay

County supervisors tabled the issue for several months. By October, the Dunn contract was no longer included as an option for county officials, who opted instead to study the plan. 

“I remain opposed to any capital work on any kind of jail occurring prior to the build out of a continuum of care for mental health and substance use disorder treatments,” County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said.

The consultant’s work will include advising the county on an acquisition strategy for design and construction, plus identifying correctional construction firms.

Supervisor: Existing Jail is Inhumane

County officials did not say how long they expect the process to take, but the county supervisor expressed concern about living conditions in the existing jail during the now-prolonged plan of a replacement. 

“Until we get an RFQ and design and public input and funding—and a majority of our successors don’t stop that project again—those individuals in that jail will be living in inhumane conditions,” outgoing County Supervisor Mike Wasserman said.

By the time the county actually goes to bid the new jail, he added, "it will cost more money than it would cost now.”

Neidlein said Dunn had not yet decided whether it would bid for the project again.