Overcrowding at the San Luis Obispo County women’s jail isn’t just about a lack of bunks or a scarcity of showers and toilets.
While it’s impossible to overlook the beds on the floor or the heat and stuffiness that come from packing 10 bodies into a cell built for six, of equal concern is the lack of space for the programs that can make a lasting difference in women’s lives.
We’re talking about education, counseling and vocational training — programs that have been shown time and again to reduce the likelihood that inmates will commit new offenses and land back behind bars.
In this tough fiscal climate, funding for such programs is scarce. But even if the county had the money to expand opportunities for jail inmates, it doesn’t have the space or the facilities.
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For example, there is now only one classroom available for 500 inmates. One-on-one counseling sessions sometimes take place in hallways. And about the only work opportunities available to women are cleaning offices and doing laundry.
That’s not acceptable — not if we want to provide the type of programming that will reduce recidivism.
The county’s proposed $36 million jail expansion project would go a long way toward curing these shortages. Not only would it add more beds for women and improve medical facilities for both men and women, it also would increase the amount of room to offer classes, vocational education and counseling by 170 percent.
Because the state is providing $25.1 million in funding for the project, we believe this is an opportunity the county can’t afford to miss.
We strongly urge the county Board of Supervisors to authorize county staff to move forward with the project.
We understand that the board has concerns about the design and function of the facility — that’s the main reason it delayed voting on the project in September.
Supervisor Adam Hill was especially insistent on not building a jail that would be a “standard lock ’em up.”
“I don’t want to build a bigger revolving door,” he told us.
Nor do we — and nor does the Sheriff’s Department or the many other agencies that provide services at the County Jail.
Not only will the project more than quadruple the capacity of the women’s jail, it also will provide the space and flexibility to offer a range of programs to men and women. Those include group and individual counseling, general education classes, vocational training, parenting classes, and drug and alcohol counseling.
It’s important to note that the design has been reviewed and approved by numerous agencies — not just the Sheriff’s Department. Probation, county health, drug and alcohol services, and the district attorney are among the agencies that have reviewed the plans and believe the new facility would meet their future needs and provide space to offer additional programming.
It makes sense to move forward now for other reasons too:
There is a well-documented need. The women’s jail was built for 43 inmates, but it’s been averaging 73. Sometimes, the population climbs to 90 — more than double the capacity.
If the county doesn’t resolve crowding, it will be vulnerable to lawsuits and could be forced to release inmates early. A worst-case scenario: Riverside County is under a federal order to release inmates when jails are at capacity. In 2005, 3,221 inmates were released early — some after serving just 5 percent of their sentences. Riverside County is now in the process of planning for a large detention center near Palm Springs.
The county qualified for state funding by agreeing to accept a re-entry center in Paso Robles that will serve state prisoners. That was a key selling point used to bolster community support for the re-entry facility, and we believe it would be disingenuous to reverse course now.
San Luis Obispo County already has paid more than $1 million for design work; that will be money down the drain if it abandons the project.
If we turn down state money, there will be few, if any, prospects for other funding sources. Again, consider another county’s experience: In November, Santa Barbara County asked voters to approve a sales tax increase to raise funds for a jail in Santa Maria. It was soundly defeated, even though the county is under a court order to reduce overcrowding at its main jail there.
Given the state’s shaky financial situation, it’s uncertain whether it will move forward with the full $1.2 billion committed to county jails. Budget analysts are advising the county that it could miss out if it doesn’t move expeditiously.
The county may have to take in even more inmates if the state goes forward with its plan to save money by keeping some low-level felons in county jails, rather than sending them to state prisons.
To be clear, accepting the grant is not a no-strings-attached arrangement.
The county is contributing nearly $10 million in matching funds to the project, though a good portion of that already has been set aside and the rest has been identified in the budget.
But the commitment won’t end there; it will cost the county an additional $1.6 million per year to operate the expanded facility. The bulk of that is for salaries and benefits — the facility will require an additional dozen or so employees.
Nonetheless, we believe this is an investment the county must make.
Sooner or later, a new women’s jail must be built; the county will be delaying the inevitable if it puts it off now and shifts the burden to a future board.
A window of opportunity is open now — it would be foolish not to take advantage of that.
About AB 900
Passed in 2007, California Assembly Bill 900 authorized issuance of $7.4 billion in bonds to finance a massive prison and jail construction program. The legislation was triggered, in part, by a federal threat to impose population caps on California’s overcrowded prisons.
The legislation included an allocation of $1.2 billion for county jail projects, with money allocated on a competitive basis. To qualify, counties must agree to allow a re-entry facility for state prisoners within their jurisdictions.
As of last year, $612 million of the county jail money — roughly half of the available funding — had already been allocated. San Luis Obispo was among those counties in line for a share of the funding.
While there are no hard-and-fast deadlines included in the legislation, AB 900 sunsets in 2017. Also, officials say that counties that don’t move expeditiously could see their grants reallocated.