A new women’s jail could open in three years as a result of a Tuesday vote by the Board of Supervisors.
In addition to giving the county administrator the go-ahead to pursue contracts for the 196-bed facility, the board backed building a new medical facility to treat both male and female inmates.
In going forward with the expansion, supervisors stressed the need for space not only to incarcerate female prisoners, but also for classrooms where they can be trained to re-enter society through job-skills training and counseling.
Supervisors also alluded to overcrowding at the existing jail, which was built for 43 inmates but averages 80, with women often sleeping on makeshift mattresses on the floor. The overcrowding causes problems for both prisoners and guards, Chief Deputy Rob Reid said.
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For example, counseling sometimes takes place in the corridor, Reid said.
Asked why the proposal calls for 196 beds, Sheriff Ian Parkinson said he did not know what the future holds, and it’s best to plan ahead.
Still, Parkinson agreed with Supervisor Adam Hill, who has long opposed what he called “a standard lock ‘em up.” Both men Tuesday reiterated the need to rehabilitate prisoners, not just punish them.
The added space will allow the inmates to work toward their high school equivalency diplomas, learn English and develop clerical and computer skills.
The idea, several speakers said, is to prepare inmates for a productive life on the outside so they don’t end up back behind bars.
“It’s more than just a women’s jail,” Supervisor Jim Patterson said, noting the emphasis on rehabilitation as well as the medical facility that will serve both male and female prisoners.
Supervisors also were nudged forward by the prospect of a $25 million grant from the state for the project. That money may not be available for long, supervisors noted, with new Gov. Jerry Brown tightening the notches on the state’s fiscal belt.
The county will kick in $11 million and pick up ongoing costs after the jail is built.
The board vote took place after representatives of several county departments lauded the proposal. In addition to Reid and Parkinson, others supporting the new jail were County Administrative Officer Jim Grant, District Attorney Jerry Shea, Chief Probation Officer Jim Salio, Court Executive Officer Susan Matherly, county Behavioral Health Services Director Karen Baylor and sheriff’s Lt. Michelle Cole.
The medical facility would include a dental suite, eliminating the need for inmates to be driven to an off-site dentist. The new jail would be built first, then the existing women’s jail would be torn down and the medical facility built in its place.
The new jail would be accessible under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, unlike the current facility.
The jail would also have two rooms that could be used by volunteer ministers or for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
The separate medical building would have three classrooms, a conference room and two office spaces that could be used for vocational training and educational programs for men and women.
Currently, only one classroom — a converted storage space — is available for the men’s and women’s jails, which have a total of 500-plus inmates who can take classes to prepare for the GED exam, as well as classes in computers, English as a second language and life skills.
The vote Tuesday authorizes Grant to begin to negotiate contracts with the state. Grant estimated that it would be three years before the jail can take prisoners.
Cynthia Lambert contributed to this report.