For Dixie Howell, the 16 months she served at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla were the loneliest and scariest times she’d ever spent behind bars.
“I had to stick to myself and work,” Howell, 38, recalled recently. “Because you can’t trust anyone.”
Despite the danger, violence and culture of state prison, Howell said she would prefer to serve her time there than in San Luis Obispo County Jail, where she is now, because of the programs and medical care it offers.
“Every class you take, you get six weeks off your sentence,” said Howell, who was arrested last August on drug-sales charges.
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She believes she would be out of state prison sooner than she’ll be released from jail, where her release date is June 30, 2015.
But because Howell was sentenced after Oct. 1 — the date a law took effect that shifted the responsibility for housing certain nonviolent offenders from the state to county governments — she’ll spend her days in a dormitory inside the women’s jail off Highway 1.
Although the County Jail is clearly less dangerous than prison, its character has changed in the 10 months since realignment took effect. The new prisoners have packed already full housing units, causing more overcrowding, increasing tensions and altercations.
From October through July, 160 people have committed new crimes that landed them in County Jail rather than state prison, according to Undersheriff Tim Olivas.
In addition, 475 people have violated their probation or parole and have been sentenced up to a maximum of 180 days in County Jail instead of heading back to prison.
Not all of those offenders remain at County Jail today; some have served their time and been released back into the community. But many others face multiple years in jail.
In addition, some of the offenders have served time in prison, giving them a higher level of criminal sophistication that can influence less seasoned inmates.
“Now, since these guys aren’t moving up to the big leagues, they’re bringing the big leagues to us,” said Correctional Sgt. Mike Thompson, who has logged nearly 26 years working at County Jail.
Correctional deputies have also found more contraband in the jail, and the number of assaults the past few years has increased. Jail officials attribute both of these trends to numerous factors, including realignment.Jail officials have responded by adding beds, refurbishing modular units to house some female inmates, adding classroom space and more programs, and hiring 15 correctional deputies, though many are still working overtime.
They’ve also recently assigned a K-9 unit to conduct searches for drugs at the jail, the men’s honor farm, and other facilities. So far, the searches have turned up a glass pipe, about 4 grams of methamphetamine and nearly 10 grams of marijuana.
State regulators say the jail should house only 517 inmates, according to a recent, unpublished report by the Board of State and Community Corrections. Yet the new beds have increased the capacity to 683.
During a May 2010 inspection of the jail, parts of the women’s facility were out of compliance with some state regulations, such as how many inmates can be housed in a certain cell, said Don Allen, a field representative for the state agency.
Construction on a new women’s jail is expected to start in January, which will alleviate some of the overcrowding when it’s completed in two years.
Even with the improvements, some inmates were worried when they found out that they’d be spending years at County Jail.
“People were panicking because they didn’t know how they’d do time here,” said Brent Brewster, a 37-year-old who has a degree in fisheries biology from Humboldt State University.
He said he’s serving a six-year sentence — though, like most other inmates, he’ll only serve half the sentence because of a state law that gives him an extra day’s credit for each day served. A new law will also allow jail officials to release some offenders up to 30 days early if the jail is overcrowded.
“At first, I was like, no, please no, but actually it’s been kind of cool,” Brewster said.
One benefit of serving time in San Luis Obispo County, he said, is that jail staff is aware of local classes and resources that will benefit inmates once they are released.
“This is run by local people who know the community,” he said.
Brewster is also fortunate: He’s spending his days on the men’s honor farm, which gives inmates more space than the main jail. He takes care of the grounds and has participated in a program that helps inmates establish steps they’ll take once released from jail.
Howell and another inmate, Jaye-J Harrison, live on the women’s honor farm. Unlike Howell, Harrison, 49, is happy to be in County Jail. The two women have taken every class they can, from creative writing to life skills to computers.
Harrison said she’s done more prison time than Howell, and is content serving her sentence at the jail. She’ll be released in March.
“There are more gangs (in prison),” Harrison said. “You have to put on a harder shell. You have to become a different person to survive in there. And it’s hard to let that go. I don’t want to be that way.”Howell made a list of pros and cons comparing jail to state prison.
The recreation yard is much better at prison, and inmates can play basketball, pingpong or soccer, she wrote. Prison offers lower-priced items at the commissary and better long-term preventive care, such as mammograms.
But County Jail is closer to family, less violent, and new programs are being established, Howell wrote.
Her “pro” list concluded: “This is a perfect opportunity to rehabilitate local offenders and at the same time provide vocational training through community service and various work detail at county venues that normally are contracted out and paid for with taxpayers’ money.”
More like prison
Still, sheriff’s officials said they’ve seen an uptick in more prison-type behavior.
Before the new legislation, inmates might have waited until they got to state prison to fight each other over what Lt. Kelly Kenitz called “respect infractions.”
But now, they’re not going to prison. Thompson said he’s noticed some inmates introducing rules that didn’t exist before, such as which races can eat together or use a specific shower.
“Our jail was a pretty mellow place,” he said. “Things are ramping up.”
And though it’s not clear whether the new category of inmates is the cause, the number of assaults at the jail has increased, which jail officers have attributed to overcrowding.
From January through July, there have been 67 assaults at the jail, including two attacks on correctional deputies.
The numbers have been tracking up for a few years, from 37 assaults in 2009, including two attacks on correctional deputies; to 68 assaults in 2010, including nine on deputies; and 84 in 2011, with eight on deputies.
At the same time, there’s been a steady rise in the average daily population, though that’s not entirely because of realignment. The average daily population has shifted from 563 in 2009 to 523 in 2010 to 616 in 2011. So far this year, it is at 706.
On Aug. 2, the day a reporter interviewed three inmates, 707 inmates were in custody, including those serving time on the honor farm and in alternative sentencing programs, such as home detention.
Of those, 199, or 28 percent, would have been in state prison if not for realignment.
“We were getting full before this, but this definitely contributes to overcrowding,” Kenitz said. “This is a problem happening all over the state, and we’re being proactive by putting bunks in instead of having them sleep in a portable bed.”
While having a bed is better than sleeping on the floor, it is still difficult if that bed is inside a small maximum-security jail cell with 10 other women. That is what Howell did for her first eight months in jail.
“You’re locked down 23 hours a day,” she said, “whereas in prison there’s time to be in the yard. You get sunlight and activity.”
Policy shift creates more work for Probation Department
Prison realignment has impacted the county Probation Department, which is now overseeing 146 additional offenders who, before Oct. 1, would have been monitored by state parole.
A unit with seasoned probation officers supervises the inmates coming out of prison, said Chief Probation Officer Jim Salio. He hopes next year to add one more officer to the unit.
Each officer supervises 45 to 50 people for up to three years. Chief Deputy Probation Officer Robert Reyes said the officers have noticed several differences between their previous caseloads and their new charges.
“This population, they come out with more of a hardened prison mentality,” he said. “They tend to be less cooperative with our probation officers.”
The offenders also tend to have more serious substance-abuse issues, lack education and employment skills and, if they’ve served a significant amount of time in prison, have difficulty separating from the prison culture once they are released.
“That’s a challenge and a barrier because they may not think that getting a legitimate job makes much sense when they know they can steal property and sell drugs and make more money than the sucker who is paving the road out there,” Reyes said.
Offenders will only be supervised by county probation if they have committed a crime that was nonviolent, not serious and nonsexual.
However, about a quarter of offenders in this new category have serious or violent felonies on their record, and perhaps 30 to 40 percent have ties to prison gangs or other groups within the prison system, Reyes said.
Probation officials are trying to provide more programs and more supervision to help the would-be parolees transition back into the community. They work with other county departments, including mental health and drug and alcohol services, to provide treatment, sober-living facilities and other programs.
The officers try to engage with those on their caseloads, check in more frequently and motivate them to change their lifestyle.
“So far, we’ve been able to put together programs that we needed that wouldn’t have existed before realignment,” Salio said.
Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.