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Local News

Santa Barbara County Jail Working to Shackle Crowding, Recidivism

Court-mandated caps and inmate services programs have changed the way it does business. First in a series

[Noozhawk’s note: This is the first in a series of stories examining Santa Barbara County’s custody operations. The county jail and substations, inmate services programs and Los Prietos Boys Camp are part of a world mostly out of the public eye — namely, what happens after a suspect has been arrested. Today, Noozhawk provides an overview of the county jail’s operations and programs. Click here for an in-depth look at the Sheriff’s Treatment Program. Click here for an article about juvenile offenders featuring Los Prietos Boys Camp.]

From the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department parking lot off of El Sueno Road, there’s not much to see of the county jail.

Its inner workings are hidden from the outside world by thick walls, dozens of coded doors, and the sworn and civilian staff of the department.

In the past 15 years, court-mandated caps on capacity and inmate services programs have changed the way the jail does business. Among the main jail, the Santa Maria substation and the medium-security facility (formerly the Honor Farm), there are more than 900 people in custody at any given time.

Its court-ordered cap, reviewed daily, is based on the physical number of beds available. Staff work to maintain the flexible cap without going to the hard cap, said Commander Diana Stetson, who has worked with the sheriff’s department for 26 years.

The operating cost of the jail for the current fiscal year was nearly $36 million, and it costs about $26,000 to house an inmate for a year. The recidivism rate is in the 70s — meaning that more than 70 percent of inmates will reoffend and be incarcerated again.

The jail doesn’t keep records on demographics or crime statistics beyond homicide; there are currently 64 people incarcerated facing those charges, Stetson said.

The jail hasn’t been sanctioned for going over its capacity limits, although it — like most other jails in California — constantly struggles to keep the numbers down, said Lt. Julian Villarreal, the custody deputy in charge of administration, the Santa Maria Jail and the medium-security facility.

Enhancing the security of the Honor Farm and creating programs to fight recidivism has helped mitigate the caps.

The new medium-security facility can house more than just low-level misdemeanor inmates, and has a capacity of 300 men and 100 women.

Villarreal said there are no issues of exceeding caps on the female side in the main jail or at the medium-security facility. There are currently about 25 women housed in the latter center.

Pre-trial, sentenced and working inmates there have a few more privileges, and the environment is noticeably so. The long rooms of bunks — triple-tiered bunks in the men’s side — would not be conducive to nongeneral population inmates.

Yard time, game rooms and libraries also are less restricted, and those who aren’t going to court or working can venture outside almost any time of day, Villarreal said.

In contrast to the mirrored control rooms throughout the main jail, staff at the minimum-security facility operate within a smaller, mesh-caged space with a 360-degree view of the operation.

The women’s side has just one female deputy on hand for each 12-hour shift, although backup is a radio call — or a walk across the front grass — away, and inmates are generally “pretty mellow,” according to a deputy on duty.

In addition to keeping the medium-security facility and the Santa Maria Jail — which holds about 40 — full, the operation uses electronic monitoring, early release and citations to control the number of inmates.

If the total inmate population is above the cap and no one can be released on his or her own recognizance or otherwise, a sentenced inmate will be released early, Villarreal said. Good time and work time all factor into the decisions, but those charged with violent crimes are not released early, he said.

The minimum-security facility, behind the main jail and in operation since Sept. 11, 2001, can house 300 men and 100 women.
The minimum-security facility, behind the main jail and in operation since Sept. 11, 2001, can house 300 men and 100 women. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

There were 29 people released early Monday, though the average is two to five people per day, Stetson said.

While the maximum amount of time a sentenced inmate stays in jail is a year per charge (for a longer sentence, inmates are transferred to prison), people can spend months to years waiting for their trials to conclude.

Jesse James Hollywood, who last year was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in the murder of Nicholas Markowitz, has been in the county jail since 2005.

Jail Operations

When an inmate is brought in, he or she is searched, cleared medically, usually put in a holding cell while being booked, and is issued a wristband that includes pertinent personal information.

A classification unit helps interview and place inmates in general population or protective custody, and there are bare safety cells for those who pose a danger to themselves or others while in holding. Behavior, gang affiliations and the charges against an inmate all influence housing.

“We don’t put people together just because it’s crowded,” Villarreal said.

Dressed in blue or orange, inmates are under constant surveillance from camera systems and control rooms positioned throughout the corridors.

While most of them can’t communicate with one another, some inmates have found a way to talk through metal and glass doors and patrolled hallways — with sign language. From a control room above the more “hard-core” A, B, C and D blocks, inmates could be seen gesturing toward one another with what one custody deputy said was a variation of sign language with some Spanish slang thrown in.

It’s not uncommon for inmates to pick it up while they’re in custody, he said.

The inmates rarely leave their cell areas, since jail employees always try to bring things to them instead of letting them out.

It’s not only the inmates who are subject to strict security regulations, though. All of the county jail’s 200 employees have to stop at each door, say a code number and wait for security personnel in the surveillance room to verify the person’s identity using cameras.

Lethal weapons are not allowed in the jail — for anyone — and gun lockers are located outside the area where inmates are booked. Custody personnel do carry Tasers, pepper spray and handcuffs.

Inmate Services

There are multiple vocational, educational and counseling programs available through the Inmate Services Unit, overseen by Lt. Mark Mahurin. Whether through fighting an addiction or increasing an inmate’s employment chances, the programs aim to decrease recidivism, which is a community problem and leads to overcrowding throughout the system.

Inmates may work in the laundry facility, print shop, metal shop or bicycle rebuilding program, in addition to tailoring, landscaping and cleaning facilities such as the Isla Vista Foot Patrol substation. A culinary program also is available, Mahurin said.

As of December, he was able to hire more staff members and is eager to expand what his unit can offer.

The Homeless Inmate Discharge Planning Program, which launched last month, identifies homeless people and works with them to create relationships, and helps them obtain and keep permanent housing after they’re released from jail.

A community outreach coordinator works with volunteers and faith-based groups that help with transportation and transitional housing for inmates.

United Through Reading, which primarily caters to the military, is used for family reorientation and is a way for inmates to relate in a positive way with their children, Mahurin said. Inmates make recordings of themselves reading books, and the recordings are sent to their children, who then write back to the parents.

The sheriff’s drug treatment program, which will be the focus of Wednesday’s story in this series, is a rehabilitation program that can be voluntary or court-mandated. Bed space limits attendance, and there’s always a waiting list.

The program, as well as the library and recreational programs, is funded without using taxpayer dollars — instead, monies come from inmates themselves. The Inmate Services Unit makes a percentage off collect phones and commissary services such as purchasing extra food items.

Its success rates could be attributed to the amount of leverage staff have since the participants are incarcerated, Mahurin said.

Participants live separately from other inmates and are required to attend counseling, group meetings and educational exercises. Many who complete the program get involved in an outside treatment program when they leave jail, and Mahurin said those people have a very high success rate.

Since a small percentage of inmates go on to prison, more than 90 percent will be next-door neighbors again in a year, said Chuck McClain, the program’s civilian supervisor.

“Do you want your next-door neighbor out of jail or just out of prison to have had help for their addiction or to not have had help?” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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