Plan for new women's jail moves closer to construction

The women’s jail was built to house 43 inmates but often houses double that number. The new facility will have a capacity for 198 beds.
The women’s jail was built to house 43 inmates but often houses double that number. The new facility will have a capacity for 198 beds. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Construction on an expanded San Luis Obispo County women’s jail, a new medical facility and an electronic security system could start as soon as February, with the award Tuesday of $31.3 million in construction and related contracts.

The project — intended to alleviate cramped conditions for female inmates as well as provide more space for counseling, education and other programs for all inmates — has exceeded cost estimates by several million dollars.

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a nearly $27.8 million construction contract and four additional contracts totaling about $3.5 million for testing, inspection services and other work.

But supervisors were notably concerned about the revised cost estimate, which pegged the total project at nearly $40.7 million, about $2 million more than estimated in August, and $4 million more than the project was expected to cost in 2007.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson called the cost estimates “a string of unpleasant surprises.”

“This board is stuck because this is a necessary project,” he said. “It’s fortunate that we have reserves that can cover a lot.”

The increase was due in part to the construction bid, which came in $1.5 million more than an engineer’s estimate, according to county General Services Agency Director Janette Pell. Some additional site preparation and staff time costs also pushed up the total.

The state is funding $25.1 million of the construction cost. County reserve funds will cover most of the remaining cost, with $694,000 coming from the general fund.

The State Public Works Board and California Department of Finance still must review the construction contract before work can begin. Pell and San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Rob Reid hope that process will be complete by January.

If the project stays on schedule, the new facility, at 1585 Kansas Ave. off Highway 1 near San Luis Obispo, should be finished by October 2016. It will be completed in phases: first, the housing unit and a new electronic security system will be built; then, the female inmates will be moved to the new jail. Then, the old women’s jail will be torn down, and the medical facility will be built in its place.

The project will expand the capacity of the women’s jail to 198 beds and ease overcrowding that often necessitates that some female inmates sleep on the floor, with only plastic mats and thin pads between them and the ground. The jail was built for 43 inmates but often houses double that number. The entire jail has recently averaged about 750 to 800 inmates, including men and women, Reid said.

In addition to addressing overcrowding, Reid said one of the project’s biggest benefits will be more classroom space for programs, including computer and life skills, parenting classes, GED preparation and treatment programs.

Jail staffers offer about 20 programs, some of which are “now conducted in housing units, hallways and individual cells due to lack of space,” Reid told county supervisors.