Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Jail inmate housing dilemma brings up important questions

Myron May brings up a very good question in his letter published June 19, “Living Like Soldiers.” Why shouldn’t jail inmates live in tents in barbed-wire compounds? Some do, but most don’t, for a number of very good reasons.

First, not everyone detained in county jails has been convicted of a crime.

In 2010, 41 percent of the women detained in the jail were not yet convicted of a crime. They were unable to post bail and, in turn, were ordered held by the superior court to assure their appearance in court.

Pretrial detainees must be held securely, so they do not escape, and safely, so they suffer no harm. So ask yourself, if you have been accused of a crime, would you find living in a tent until your innocence was established acceptable?

Second, there is a range of security needs for both pretrial and sentenced inmates, depending upon their behavior, risk of escape and need to be protected from other inmates.

The San Luis Obispo County Jail has a men’s minimum security area where inmates are successfully housed in old, relocated military barracks acquired from Camp San Luis Obispo.

Butte County housed medium security inmates in a lightly constructed work release facility a number of years ago, when demand exceeded their capacity. It was so damaged by the inmates that Butte County elected to renovate it for offices instead.

For many inmates, tents could not assure the safety of the community, nor protect other inmates from their predatory behavior.

Another question to ask is: Does the United States Army still consider tents appropriate housing for enlisted personnel? Certainly, tents are still used for field operations, but new base housing more closely resembles college dormitories. If tent housing is considered outmoded by the U.S. Army, why would we consider it for the much more challenging jail population?

We need to ask questions such as Mr. May’s as we consider major expenditures to meet our county’s growing and changing needs.

What kinds of jail housing meet our community’s standards? What meets constitutional requirements? When do we use expensive incarceration and when do we use other forms of supervision, at significantly less cost? Elected officials need to educate the public on these issues so citizens are able to make informed decisions about supporting or opposing expensive jail construction. Greg Barker is a San Luis Obispo architect with 25 years of experience in planning criminal justice facilities.

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