Take a tour of the new $40 million SLO County Women’s Jail

After three years of work, construction on the new San Luis Obispo County Women’s Jail is complete, and the Sheriff’s Office has scheduled move-in day for next week.

On Monday, officials led a tour of the state-of-the-art facility, which at 36,000 square feet is four times the size of the existing facility. The overall project cost $40.7 million, of which $27.7 million went to construction.

The new jail on Kansas Avenue in San Luis Obispo has 194 beds and two safety cells for mentally unstable inmates. That’s 151 more beds than the old 8,500-square-foot jail. It will employ about 150 people.

In addition, it features modern security and monitoring technology (including 200 cameras, 150 more than the current facility) and design details that may seem minor but can make a big difference in keeping staff and inmates safe, Chief Deputy Rob Reid said.

In the jail’s main hallway, for example, the bottom half of the walls are made of a smooth, polished stone unlike the rough cinder blocks used elsewhere. If deputies are working with a violent inmate or a fight breaks out, the polished stone takes less skin off the knuckles, Reid said.

“Plus, it looks nicer,” he added.

Women make up about one-fifth to one-sixth of the total County Jail population, Reid said. The current population is at about 43, but it can bounce from 60 to 100 women. The intention with the new jail was always to have more capacity than necessary, Sheriff Ian Parkinson said.

The new jail has been under construction since 2014 and will replace the current, aging women’s facility, which is more than 30 years old. Plans for the jail had been in the works since 2005, and in 2008, San Luis Obispo County received about $25 million from the state to help build the facility.

Inmates will move in to their new home April 6. Reid said they’ll take about a week to settle in and make sure everything is working right. At that point, if there are no problems, demolition on the old jail will begin to make way for a new medical facility.

Bright and modern

At the new women’s facility, both maximum and medium security units, plus the Honor Farm section, have a light-filled common area, with large glass windows that look out on a high-walled exercise yard. The two main units each include a medical exam room, an interview room, space for multiple programs to be conducted at the same time, and a video visitation room where inmates can connect remotely with friends, family and attorneys instead of waiting for physical visiting hours.

Reid said he toured jails across the country while they were in the planning process for this one.

One of the jails that stood out, he said, was a facility in Kentucky where the inmates’ common areas had carpets and leather couches that had been put in a few years prior to his visit. Even after that time, the carpet and couches still looked like new.

“The inmates were in a nicer environment, so they took care of it,” Reid said. “There’s a societal peer pressure to treat things nice.”

SLO County’s new facility is painted in a soothing color scheme, with cream-colored white walls and blue doors and accents. The design, like other aspects of the jail, serves a double purpose: It’s not only pleasant-looking, but it also encourages good behavior among the inmates.

“If you get to see a big space, it’s better for you mentally,” Reid said.

As for the color scheme: “It’s not offensive, it doesn’t put you to sleep, it makes people get along.”

Reid said that with the new jail, authorities are trying to create a more rehabilitative environment that will prepare inmates to go back into society.

“All of these people in here have been out in the general public,” Reid said. “When they walk out of here, they’re going to go back there.”

Note: This story has been updated with details on the number of cameras at the jail and the building that will replace the old jail when it is demolished.

Gabby Ferreira: 805-781-7858, @Its_GabbyF