For inmates released from the Santa Barbara County Jail, a bus is often the way to get home when there’s no one to call for a ride.
In the middle of the night, when many inmates are freed because their sentences are complete, there are fewer options, however. It’s an issue the county’s Grand Jury highlighted in a report published last week.
The jail, located at 4434 Calle Real, is relatively isolated. After interviewing jail staff and the jail release policies, the grand jury “concluded that inmates are not always advised of their options either verbally or in writing upon release,” the report states.
The grand jury’s report pointed out that the jail is a busy place, with 20 to 40 inmates released over an average 24-hour period.
By court order, the Sheriff’s Department is required to release inmates at the end of their sentences, which often means inmates are released late at night. An average of nine inmates are released between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., the grand jury report found.
Jail policy states that if an inmate is released during hours of darkness and doesn’t have a ride from jail, the individual should be advised that he or she can remain in the jail lobby or on the outside benches until daylight hours without risk of trespassing.
However, the grand jury received information that there isn’t specific written policy on what is told to the inmate being released.
The lobby is a spartan room with two chairs and access to restrooms, but most inmates choose not to remain there until daylight.
Custody Operations Chief Deputy Laz Salinas said the department is reviewing the grand jury’s report. Even before it was published, he said, the department had been working on strategies to reduce the numbers of late-night releases.
“We have asked the courts to craft release orders that provide us some flexibility to widen the time frame that we can legally release an individual to accommodate public transportation schedules,” he said.
The talks are ongoing, but Salinas said he’s hopeful that modifying the terms could allow more inmates to be released during daylight hours.
Suzanne Riordan, director of Families ACT!, an organization for families of people diagnosed with drug and alcohol addictions as well as mental health issues, said late-night releases have been a problem for years.
“As parents, many of us have sat in the jail parking lot for hours and hours and hours waiting for our mentally ill, very vulnerable, often very young loved ones to be released,” she said.
Riordan, whose son died of a drug overdose in 2005, said he was once released in the middle of the night in his undershorts, the clothes he was wearing when he was taken in 24 hours after a suicidal overdose attempt.
“What if his parent had not lived in Santa Barbara?” she asked. “What if he were so mentally ill or so alienated from friends and parents that he had not been able to call someone to pick him up?
“This is a cruel system.”
Jail personnel can hold an inmate for up to 12 hours past the release date if they feel the inmate’s safety is compromised, or can make a referreal to CARES, the Crisis and Recovery Emergency Services team operated through the county Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services.
Inmates who have agreed to enter a drug and rehab program are transported to the facility when space becomes available.
Public transportation isn’t available 24 hours a day, so inmates traveling to Lompoc, Santa Maria or other communities must wait until bus services resume. Inmates are offered bus vouchers if they don’t have a ride or don’t have the money to pay for one.
Taxi services have previously been available during late-night hours, thanks to funding from an anonymous donor, and homeless inmates are often taken to the Salvation Army, the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission or the downtown transit center, but future private funding for the taxi service is “questionable,” the grand jury stated.
The grand jury suggested an alternative program, using Orange County’s “Lights On” program as an example. The program is run by a faith-based organization and uses a converted motor home in the jail parking lot. The mobile facility is staffed by volunteers who provide released inmates with coffee, snacks, bus schedules, use of a cell phone and connection to services.
The Sheriff’s Department already has a verbal agreement to work with a faith-based organization to use the jail lobby as a place to stay until the inmate can arrange transportation, Cmdr. Darin Fotheringham said.
As for formal recommendations, the grand jury recommended that the Sheriff’s Department establish a written policy that each inmate has been briefed about the options, including the ability to wait in the lobby, and encouraged the department to develop its own version of the “Lights On” program.
Salinas said that’s just what the department is doing.
“We are engaged in forming agreements with community-based organizations to provide volunteers to staff the facility during late-night hours to provide services, clothing, phone-charging services and snacks to individuals who take refuge in the facility during evening hours,” he said.