Crowded women’s jail is big lawsuit threat
July 6, 2008
By RON CRAWFORD
A badly overcrowded women’s jail is the result of Sheriff’s Department officials’ penchant for punishment, a policy that poses for county taxpayers a distinct threat of costly litigation.
Repeated warnings from successive San Luis Obispo County grand juries and a variety of state regulators regarding severely deficient conditions and worsening overcrowding in the women’s facility have been routinely ignored.
Rather, current Sheriff’s Department procedure is to incarcerate as many women as possible, often to serve simply as a “wake-up call.” Department officials are hoping for salvation from the overcrowding problem by building a $50 million expansion to the women’s jail. But that expectation diminished when SLO County officials received word in May that it did not qualify for the state’s anticipated contribution of half of that cost.
In a facility built to handle 43 prisoners, the county jail often teems with as many as 100, according to a past SLO County Grand Jury Report.
A 2006 report by the California State Sheriffs’ Association cites state and federal standards, rules and regulations regarding the number of people that can be housed in jails and individual cells. The threat of successful litigation by inmates because of crowding is significant, according to the report.
One readily available solution to the jail crowding issue is a “population cap.”
In 20 California counties, according to the report, “lawsuits have resulted in court-ordered population caps. An additional dozen counties have imposed population caps on themselves to avoid the costly litigation that results from crowding. These population caps mean that, when a jail is full, for every new inmate being admitted, someone already in custody has to be released.”
San Luis Obispo County is not one of the 32 counties with current caps on female prisoner totals.
“Incarceration allows a vast majority of individuals who are ‘one- timers’ the incentive to never return,” wrote Chief Deputy Rob Reid in an e-mail. “Population caps can eliminate this incentive, and these individuals may not benefit from the wake-up call received by many, and thus prevent their return which increases our population.”
Another alternative to lockup for first-time, non-violent offenders, was created in 2007 when legislation was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger allowing counties to create mandatory home detention programs for “low-risk” inmates to help ease overcrowding. And while this county has a home detention program, there are currently only 93 participants, and it is entirely voluntary.
Living conditions at the facility have been out of compliance for at least seven years, and are getting progressively worse.
San Luis Obispo County’s 2001 Grand Jury reported on the overcrowding in the women’s jail and recommended that the sheriff “act to correct the situation.”
Two years later, Grand Jury members toured the county jail, accompanied by the sheriff and a correctional lieutenant to examine one continuing area of concern: overcrowding in the women’s section of the jail.
By 2004, little had been yet been done, and the Grand Jury once again called the overcrowding at the women’s jail facility an “unacceptable situation.”
An inspection by members of the state Board of Corrections in February 2004 resulted in findings that the women’s jail facilities, including the female single cells, dorm and honor farm “…continue to remain out of compliance….”
Finding nothing had changed, subsequent grand jurors from 2005 to 2007 found “the women’s jail is overcrowded and continues to operate out of compliance….” The overcrowded conditions at the facility cause it to be in continuing violation of state building codes.
“Jane” served seven days at the facility last year while awaiting arraignment for a non-violent offense.
“The place is gross,” she said. “There are mattresses on the floor between the bunks. People can’t step without stepping on you. It’s packed. There’s no room to walk between the bunks. It’s such a fire hazard.”
Along with crowded conditions comes stress on drinking water supplies and sanitary facilities, in violation of California’s Title 24 building code.
Before passage of SB 959, the state’s home detention plan, a county could utilize detention programs only if the inmate agreed to participate. (Inmates volunteering for home detention must pay the cost for the program. In SLO County, it costs participants $1,000 a month. For SB 959’s mandatory home detention program, participants are not charged, and the counties pick up the expense, as they do with incarcerated inmates.) The legislation was supported by law enforcement groups including the California State Sheriffs’ Association, and Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo).
The legislation included this observation: “This (home detention) program has been very successful in Los Angeles County. The program’s success has been two-fold. First, it saves the county money. The cost of home monitoring is $10 a day as compared to $70 a day for an inmate in custody. [And the] program opens up bed space for serious or violent offenders. The state and counties are all experiencing a crisis regarding limited jail [and] prison space. The home monitoring program is an effective solution to assist in alleviating overcrowding.”
Reid wrote in his e-mail that his department will not recommend to supervisors that the county implement a mandatory home detention program for the county’s low-risk offenders.
“There are limits to operating the (county’s home detention) program,” Reid wrote, “and who the public will accept as individuals allowed to participate in the program. By forcing this program on individuals who do not otherwise qualify and desire to participate, there is a risk of incurring additional charges and increasing our inmate population.”
He added, “We have a home detention program which is used extensively.”
According to officials, there have been 93 women placed in the county’s home detention program this fiscal year. Though, at any given time, the number is substantially lower. Monitoring of participants is contracted to a private company, and one sheriff’s deputy is assigned to administer the program and provide random monitoring.
Additional jail construction is the sheriff’s answer to all this, despite the state funding hurdle.
“The [jail’s] design is at the end of the design development phase,” Reid wrote. “Pending state funding, the project could start as early as May, 2009.” Unrecoverable county costs for planning and design so far total at least $1 million.
County Administrator David Edge said the debate over home detention may not have ended.
“I suspect that the ‘alternatives to incarceration’ debate may well surface again if we don’t get any jail money from the state this time around,” Edge wrote. He suggested the county is “still in the race [for state dollars] only if one of the successful counties fails to meet one of the required criteria in the next couple of months.”
Edge declined to get any further into the debate.
“The sheriff (Pat Hedges) is an independent, elected official, so whether I agree or disagree with his choice doesn’t really matter,” Edge wrote.
Ron Crawford is an independent journalist living in San Luis Obispo County. He can be reached through his blog, Sewerwatch