Chatter broken by sporadic laughter could be heard as 17 women, dressed in blue shirts and jeans, learned conflict resolution skills Thursday morning.
The women live on the honor farm at the San Luis Obispo County Jail, and the program — officially called Alternatives to Violence — is one of the benefits of being housed in this unit.
Three weeks ago, the women’s honor farm moved out of the jail and into two modular units next door to the main facility off Highway 1. It’s the first time the county Sheriff’s Office has had a separate honor farm for women.
The change was made to help ease overcrowding at the main jail, which is over capacity, and give women some of the same opportunities as their male counterparts housed at the men’s honor farm down the road.
On Thursday, the women’s jail housed 74 inmates, not including the honor farm. The facility was built to hold 43.
The new unit frees up additional bed space for women housed in minimum-security dorms inside the women’s jail.
But it won’t alleviate the crowded conditions in the maximum-security side of the jail.
Relief there will come only after the new 38,000-square-foot women’s jail housing unit, estimated to cost $33 million, is built in two years. Construction is expected to start in January.
Two modular units were installed to create the women’s honor farm at a cost of about $130,000, paid for with state funds, said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Tony Cipolla.
One unit has been outfitted with 28 beds; the other is set up for programs, classes and exercise, with a treadmill, a stationary bicycle and yoga mats.
The women can move freely between the two units. They have more opportunities to work at county facilities, such as cleaning cages at Animal Services, washing cars and janitorial duties. They also have chances to share their story with at-risk youths and other groups.
Already, a few correctional deputies and inmates said they’ve noticed a change in the way women are interacting and trusting each other and approaching their sentences.
“Since we’ve been here, people are engaging and signing up (for programs) because they want to better themselves,” said 25-year-old Erin Soqui, who after five arrests for driving under the influence is serving a three-year sentence. She is set to be released April 25.
Soqui graduated from Paso Robles High School in 2005.
“It’s definitely been a humble learning experience, and I want to take advantage of every opportunity as tools to use out in the world,” she said.