Sheriff challenges grand jury’s cure for jail overcrowding

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Sheriff challenges grand jury’s cure for jail overcrowding By Karen White and Rick Tuttle — Staff Writers 6/10/01 SANTA BARBARA — A Santa Barbara County grand jury recommendation on how to end the early release of inmates cannot be legally done, Sheriff Jim Thomas said Friday. The grand jury is “really trying to help” and should keep coming up with ideas because “they may hit one,” Thomas said. The jury’s recommendation is to adapt the Santa Maria substations and Lompoc City Jail for full-time prisoners to reduce the number of prisoners in the main county jail. The report talked at length about how a “policy change, rather than a major construction expense, could eliminate the early release of inmates.” Thomas said it is not a policy, but state rules that mandate his actions in operating the jails and honor farms. The June 2001 report on detention facilities and sheriff’s department issues from the Grand Jury praises the sheriff’s operations, but proposes changes to make the two local jails more than just 96-hour holding facilities. The report proposes the addition of a nurse and fences for an exercise yard to allow the Santa Maria substation, with room for 35 short-term prisoners, to be used for more permanent programs. The Santa Maria jail also has a work furlough program for up to 21 inmates. Space in the Lompoc jail will become available on July 1 when the county begins using new pre-trial holding cells in the newly-expanded Lompoc Superior Court building. In both cases, it is much more complicated than just adding a nurse, Thomas said, or it would have already been done. A complete new building would be needed to meet fire codes and other requirements of the State Department of Corrections for Santa Maria, and possibly for Lompoc. Another factor is that short-term prisoners at both Santa Maria and Lompoc facilities are fed micro-waved frozen dinners. This cannot be done on a long-term basis, Thomas said, laughing about a frozen dinner being “cruel and unusual punishment.” In reality, the frozen dinners do not meet minimum nutritional requirements for prisoners as set by the state. They can only be used on a temporary basis. Thomas, and past Grand Juries, have supported plans for a North County Jail. The need has been documented again and again. However, the voters in November 1999, did not endorse the public expense of building such a facility. “Planning and funding for a new jail are complex and it could take many years to achieve this solution,” the Grand Jury said, suggesting utilization, in the short-term, of the county’s other jail facilities to end the early release of inmates from county jails because of overcrowding. The courts have ordered Thomas to make the releases, limiting the number persons that can be housed at the present jail facilities. More than 2,000 inmates were released before serving their full sentences in the past two years because of a population “cap” at the main jail. The Grand Jury proposed that better utilization of other county detention centers could keep more inmates from being bounced early from the system. “We can’t change the law to do that,” Thomas said. The solution is just not that simple, he said, or it already would have happened. A task force involving all of the law enforcement entities, including the courts and district attorney’s office, has been dealing with the overcrowding issue for several years and has come up with no solution, Thomas said. Lompoc Police Chief Bill Brown said there are similar challenges with the Lompoc city jail. “It’s just not a facility that’s designed for long-term incarceration,” he said. In order to house long-term prisoners overnight, significant structural work would have to be completed to convert the large cell into three individual cells, he said. Both the Santa Maria and Lompoc jails are Type I facilities, which by law can hold prisoners for a maximum of 96 hours. Lompoc’s jail can hold 23 prisoners and contains short-term containment cells and an additional cell that houses two long-term Honor Farm trustees. But even with the modification, the newly-divided cells could only accommodate between 6 to 10 prisoners, depending on the police department’s own fluctuating day-to-day needs for cell space, Brown said. He said his department is more than willing to discuss any possibilities with the county, but the modification does not appear to be a feasible and cost-effective answer. “It’s not quite as easy a fix as it appears at first blush,” he said. :nav Source:

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