Donovan Prison rally
  • Donovan Prison rally
  • Image by Aaron Leaf, courtesy of United Against Police Terror
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A protest against the proposed expansion of Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility brought over 60 people carrying signs and chanting slogans to a remote corner of Otay Mesa on March 29th.

The new building is planned to be a medical treatment center for prisoners with disabilities and mental health issues.

"These projects demonstrate the state’s commitment to comply with federal court orders to provide adequate inmate health care and reduce overcrowding," said department of corrections secretary Jeffrey Beard in an announcement last January. The new building will cost taxpayers $168.7 million, employ 180 people and have a total annual operating cost of $5.5 million, according to officials.

Organizers of the demonstration said the expansion is an example of wasteful government spending and called for the money to go to education and alternatives to incarceration.

It is an "unnecessary waste of land and money on San Diego," said Dennis Childs, professor at the UCSD. “Who in San Diego wants more prisons? We are going to speak out against this unnecessary use of dollars that can be used to empower the youth of San Diego instead of incarcerating them or their families.

Cathy Mendoca speaks at the rally

Cathy Mendonca of the group United Against Police Terror was at the protest to give attention to the "criminalization of the mentally ill in our society."

"Half of the issue is that these people are locked up and charged for their illnesses," she said. Mendonca said the combination of "being stigmatized at an early age" combined with "a lack of community-based programs" leads to arrest, jail and prison for many mentally ill people.

She added that sometimes there is a vicious circle when police brutality causes a mental illness to start and then the mental illness keeps the sick person in prison. "What could tie in with mental illness is that it can be trauma-induced," Mendoca added. "Not only is the illness criminalized but the trauma that was induced by police is then criminalized."

James Messer of the organization Black and Pink, which represents LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) prisoners, was also at the protest. He said Black and Pink had joined the Californians United for a Responsible Budget coalition to demonstrate against the new prison construction and "to bring the LGBTQ perspective on this expansion" to the public. Messer said his group supports 14 prisoners in Donovan prison who are LGBTQ.

Black and Pink was at the protest "on behalf of those prisoners, and in solidarity with other affected prisoners," he said, and to demand investment in such things as education, affordable housing and substance abuse programs. Messer said he was also there "to stand against the prison-industrial complex as a whole."

"They create a demand for more prisoners by building more prisons," he said. "The LGBTQ population is vulnerable to prison because of the school to prison pipeline. They get bullied or kicked out of school, which obstructs their education, which leads to survival crimes or substance abuse." Survival crimes are crimes like drug dealing and prostitution that people are "forced to do or coerced to do" due to lack of opportunities or unfair treatment. According to Messer, transgender people suffer from extraordinarily higher rates of incarceration than average — 16% of transgender people overall, 47% for transgender African-Americans and 30% of transgender Native Americans. This all amounts to "institutional violence," Messer said.

Messer was also there to point out that "law enforcement is inherently racist."

"Over 50% of prison population is there for drug-related offences," he said, "and though all racial groups use drugs at about the same percentage, it's mostly African Americans in prison for drugs."

Construction of the new facility is set to begin sometime this spring.

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