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North County Jail
updated: Feb 08, 2014, 4:00 PM

By Alex Kacik

The percussive banging of an inmate punching the door of his jail cell echoes throughout the Central corridor of the Santa Barbara County Main Jail. He's hitting so hard that it shakes not only the nerves of the guards and inmates around him, but the floor as well.

"It's a cry for help," a prison guard says.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Laz Salinas, the man who manages jail staff and operations, walks through the Central hallway, stopping at an out-of-order elevator. Salinas says an inmate purposefully flooded the cell next to it to short out the elevator, running up a $250,000 tab in repairs. "Some guys say, ‘I have nothing left to lose, so I'm going to make life miserable for everyone else,'" Salinas says over the inmate's persistent pounding, adding that maintenance crews are at the jail about 10 hours per day.

Custody Deputy Kim Smith, a 28-year department veteran, leads the way to the West Wing, where 96 or so women on any given day are held. Smith makes sure the female inmates are decent before walking up to a dorm-style cell housing 18 women, several of whom are playing cards on a table. Another reads a paperback as the afternoon sun peeks through the opaque windows. Beds are stacked in the back of the room around a silver toilet. A woman showers in the front corner behind a white curtain, near the door. Guards are supposed to "feel the vibe," says Smith. "If it's quiet, you're in trouble." Some of the women complain that they have to sleep on the floor of the 42-year-old jail, that there's no air conditioning; and that they can't take classes, anger management counseling or substance abuse programs.

"We're like caged animals in here," one woman yells out.

The jail on County Road off Calle Real, as it's designed now, does not lend itself to programming such as substance abuse treatment-there's not enough space, Salinas says.

He asks the cellmates how many have substance abuse problems. All 18 raise their hands. "How do I deliver those services here?" asks Salinas, adding that they converted the basement to accommodate 50 beds. "People who criticize spending $96 million on a new jail don't have mothers, kids, brothers, sisters or their relatives here."

The North County Jail construction is expected to cost at least $96.1 million. The county will pay more than $17.3 million annually to fund the jail's operating cost. (Alex Kacik)

Salinas is talking about the planned 376-bed North County Jail in Santa Maria, an estimated $96.1 million project that will cost the county more than $17 million a year to run. Some say this is the answer to an overcrowded Main Jail and a way to provide more of the services these inmates are asking for. Others say that more money should be spent on prevention, rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration.

The Santa Barbara Superior Court has been keeping a close eye on the county's strategies to reduce its jail population since Inmates of Santa Barbara Jail v. Sheriff John Carpenter was filed in 1981.

Then, the court ordered the sheriff's department, which runs the county jails, to reduce its jail population. Among the measures adopted were early-release programs, expanding cite release (issuing citations for lesser offenses with the condition of showing up to court instead of being held in jail) and parole programs, building a reception center and capping the inmate population.

The average daily population at the Santa Barbara County Jail facilities in 2013-including the Main Jail, the medium-security facility (formerly the Honor Farm) and the Santa Maria Branch Jail-was 1,003 inmates. The inmate population at the Main Jail generally hovers around the court-mandated cap of 649 males and 101 females (750 in all). When the court exceeds that cap, the jail must either move inmates to the medium-security facility or release some inmates early-up to 21 days. Those who are released early wear a GPS bracelet until their original discharge date, Salinas says.

Overcrowding puts the safety of the inmates and jail staff at risk, but what kind of offenders are in jail? Some observers, such as attorney Robert Sanger, who filed the 1981 lawsuit, contend that many who don't need to be locked up are stuck in jail awaiting trial.

The Santa Barbara County Main Jail may not be perfect but it's adequate, said Laz Salinas, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Department chief deputy. Staff converted the basement to accommodate 50 beds. (Alex Kacik)

A snapshot of the population on January 28 shows that 80 percent of the inmates are pre-trial detainees, while 20 percent have been sentenced, according to sheriff's department spokesperson Kelly Hoover. She says 80 percent are booked for felonies and 20 percent for misdemeanors.

According to Hoover, the department doesn't "have the tools" to gather and analyze data about the specific types of charges among its population, nor could it specify how many offenders were booked and released on the same day.

The number of pre-trial detainees varies dramatically from county to county based on mental health condition and economic status, says Patrick Boyd, who recently retired as San Francisco's chief probation officer. "What drives the arrest and bookings? It's often mental health issues, drug and alcohol citations, and homelessness," says Boyd, who also worked as a probation manger in Santa Barbara. "To what extent would good, solid treatment programs help alleviate that so you don't have the arrest in the first place?"

The county's medical and mental health budget has been severely cut back over the years. A number of grand jury reports outline a need for acute-care beds and outpatient residential treatment. In order to reduce the jail population, the county needs to add mental health beds and treatment programs as well as reform the bail policy so poor people don't sit in jail, says Sanger.

"Locking up people is archaic," he says. "An effective probation is much more beneficial to the individual and society so people don't end up in prison, where they learn to be better criminals." The jail currently has about 156 inmates sentenced to electronic monitoring, the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program-where misdemeanor offenders can serve sentences in increments to maintain their full-time jobs instead of going to jail-and other alternative sentencing programs that the department says are stopgap measures to alleviate an overcrowded jail.

Salinas says the department secured a long-term solution through AB 900, also known as the Public Safety and Offender Rehabilitation Services Act of 2007. AB 900 set aside $7.7 billion statewide from the state's general fund for an additional 53,000 California prison and jail beds and $50 million for treatment and rehabilitation services.

AB 900 is the greenback geyser behind the new jail. The California Board of State and Community Corrections provided Santa Barbara County with $80 million in AB 900 funds. The county ponied up its 10 percent ($8.9 million) and will have to fund the estimated $17.3 million it'll cost to operate the new jail. The county's heavy investment in incarceration comes after several years of declining violent crime rates and a statewide and national rethinking of lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approaches to jurisprudence.

"Build it and they will come, they will fill it," says Suzanne Riordan of Families ACT!, a Santa Barbara nonprofit that coordinates mental health services and seeks alternatives to incarceration for people with mental health and substance use disorders. The nonprofit is helping design five residential treatment facilities as well as permanent supportive housing. "They are going to start putting pressure on the board of supervisors for tons of our county dollars to operate the new jail. The pressure will be on now until eternity, and that will suck away dollars for treatment outside of the context of the criminal-justice system."

Excerpt provided by Mission & State. Read the full article at MissionAndState.org


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