Life at San Luis Obispo County Jail: ‘We’re packed’

Senior correctional Deputy Richard Fuller visits the new housing area at the women’s honor farm. Twenty-four new beds have been added to the area at the County Jail.
Senior correctional Deputy Richard Fuller visits the new housing area at the women’s honor farm. Twenty-four new beds have been added to the area at the County Jail.

Correctional Sgt. Mike Thompson can sum up the situation at the San Luis Obispo County Jail in one word: “Crowded.”

Since the beginning of 2011, the number of inmates at the jail has steadily increased, and a new state policy last October shifted even more inmates there.

In response, sheriff’s officials have so far hired 10 new correctional deputies, added 104 beds, and remodeled two modular units, one to house female inmates and the other with new space for classes, counseling and other programs.

However, the new hires are still training and won’t be able to cover shifts by themselves until August. The number of assaults among inmates has more than doubled from 2009 to 2011, and while jail officials don’t blame the recent influx of new inmates, overcrowding is the main problem.

Additional beds will relieve some crowding in the women’s jail but won’t solve the problem until a new facility is completed in about three years. Even with the extra beds, about 20 men and 25 women on average are still sleeping on the floor.

The County Jail was built to house 518 inmates but has 598 beds.

“We’re packed,” said Thompson, president of the San Luis Obispo County Deputy Sheriffs Association. He has worked at the jail for about 25 years. “We’ve had to add bunks to three different housing units so far. It’s just a constant battle to move people around.”

Under the state policy called realignment, county governments received responsibility for managing and supervising certain offenders who previously were sent to state prison or paroled.

The plan is intended to help California save money and comply with a federal court order to reduce its prison population. The state is expected to give the county $2.3 million this fiscal year, plus an additional $305,000 for one-time planning and startup costs.

In some areas, including the Central Valley, the change has been blamed for overcrowding, a spike in violence and in some cases, an early release of inmates.

In Fresno County, violent clashes among inmates increased nearly 20 percent during the first three months of the program, as a rougher crowd of inmates, with more gang involvement, was brought into the jail, The Fresno Bee reported.

Meanwhile, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a report Wednesday noting that realignment is “proceeding largely as planned,” with the number of offenders the counties are handling close to what the administration had projected.

San Luis Obispo County officials aren’t blaming realignment for an increase in violence at their jail, but instead point to an overall increase in the population.

In 2009, there were 37 assaults at the jail, including two attacks on correctional deputies. That number jumped to 68 assaults in 2010, including nine on deputies; and 84 in 2011, with eight on deputies.

During the same time period, the average daily population in the jail has gone from 563 in 2009 to 523 in 2010 to 616 in 2011. That number includes those serving time through home detention and alternative work programs.

Realignment has been in place since Oct. 1. Since then, 266 offenders have cycled through County Jail, including those who violated their parole or probation, as well as those committing new crimes.

The numbers are on track with what jail officials predicted, said Undersheriff Martin Basti.

To deal with the influx, jail officials are also expanding programs that allow offenders to serve their sentence outside of jail.

Also, two modular units are nearly ready to house inmates and programs.

Twenty-four beds have been added to house inmates on the women’s honor farm, which will give the women a chance to take on some additional duties, such as washing cars and preparing meals in the kitchen.

It will also free up additional bed space for women housed in a minimum-security dorm.

But it won’t alleviate the crowded conditions in the nearby maximum-security cells. Relief will come after the new 38,000-square-foot women’s jail housing unit, estimated to cost $33 million, is built in about three years. Construction is expected to start in the fall, Basti said.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following@SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.