Northern Branch Jail construction
Northern Branch Jail construction near Santa Maria has been plagued by delays and now is expected to last through June, according to the Sheriff’s Department. The facility is expected to open later this summer, after a staff training period. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The construction completion date for the new Santa Barbara County jail has been pushed again, but the Sheriff’s Department still expects to start accepting inmates at the facility this summer.

The 376-bed Northern Branch Jail near Santa Maria is expected to finish construction between late June and August, then staff will have a training period and open it by September, Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Raquel Zick recently said.

Santa Barbara County has 90 days to occupy the space after construction is finished, according to state grant requirements.

Chief Vincent Wasilewski, head of the Custody Operations Branch, has said the plan is to gradually start accepting inmates at the Santa Maria location, rather than sending everyone south to the Main Jail.

The aging Main Jail facility near Santa Barbara has been overcrowded for decades, until the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted the Sheriff’s Department to reduce bookings, grant early releases and take other measures to drop the inmate population to 568 as of last week — the lowest it’s been in 50-plus years.

Even if the new jail opened sooner, “we still wouldn’t be able to achieve the social distancing,” Zick said.

Main Jail inmates have been provided N-95 masks and cloth masks, as well as paper bags to store them in, she said. They are typically wearing them whenever they leave their housing units for programs or to use common areas.

Northern Branch Jail construction

Construction has been reportedly 98 percent completed on the new North County jail for several months now. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The county’s Civil Grand Jury issues a Detention Facilities report every year, and in February it visited the new jail as part of its investigation.

“The most noteworthy findings were the current overcrowding in the Main Jail, the significant schedule and cost overrun of the new Northern Branch Jail, a new proposed approach to inmate management for the new jail, the significant shortage of critical body scanning equipment in the facilities to address the drug contraband problem, the need for improved camera coverage, and serious sheriff and police staff shortages directly impacting public safety,” the Grand Jury report concluded.

Jurors took issue with some of the Northern Branch Jail’s design features, such as the lack of in-person visitation (only video booths are included) and small exercise areas.

“Considering the potentially long sentences for some inmates, these small enclosures are inadequate,” the Grand Jury wrote.

The Sheriff’s Department did not have transportation available for released inmates to leave the facility, which is 10 miles from the Santa Maria city center, the report said.

Zick said the Sheriff’s Department is not commenting on the report’s finding and recommendations until the official response to the Grand Jury is released.

According to the report, the Sheriff’s Department was short-staffed for its custody operations, with 13 fewer positions than the 228 needed for three overlapping schedules. That creates mandatory overtime and stress, the Grand Jury wrote — and that report was based on pre-pandemic conditions.

The Northern Branch Jail will need 90 custody deputies, according to the report, and there will be more direct supervision of inmates.

Zick said she was unsure how many vacancies the Sheriff’s Department has now.

Northern Branch Jail construction

Northern Branch Jail construction, seen in April 2019. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

The Main Jail at 4436 Calle Real has had a contraband problem for decades, and the Grand Jury has written a report on its role in inmate overdoses. Contraband includes drugs and alcohol, cellphones, money, cigarette lighters and matches, and weapons.

A Main Jail inmate overdosed on heroin in 2009, presumably from drugs he got inside the facility since he had been booked into the jail two weeks before he died.

Multiple nonfatal overdoses have been reported in recent years, and Wellpath medical staff have had to administer Narcan to inmates, the medication used to reverse opioid overdoses.   

The Grand Jury recommended in that report that the Sheriff’s Department purchase full-body scanners and another drug-detection dog to detect contraband. Sheriff Bill Brown put body-scanning equipment into his proposed 2020-21 budget.

The report does not go into details about the need for better camera coverage in the Main Jail, but the camera surveillance system has known blind spots. In 2018, a Goleta man killed himself in one of the isolation cells, where the camera could not see him, according to a different Grand Jury investigation.

When the Northern Branch Jail opens, hundreds of inmates will still need to be housed at the Main Jail. Before the pandemic, the average daily population was around 900, but even with sub-600 numbers, the South County facility will continue being used.

The Sheriff’s Department spends $72.5 million on custody operations now — more than it spends on countywide law enforcement — and the Northern Branch Jail is expected to cost about $20 million to operate.

Northern Branch Jail construction

The interior of the Northern Branch Jail under construction, seen in April 2019. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

There will not likely be any cost savings from having fewer inmates in the Main Jail, Wasilewski said in February, so the $20 million will be in addition to current costs and the planned multimillion-dollar renovations for the South County facilities.

Custody costs at the Main Jail are $120 per day per inmate, or $43,800 per inmate per year, according to the Grand Jury report. Sheriff’s Department records show that in 2018, on average, one-third of unsentenced jail inmates were being held on bail of less than $5,000, and 42 percent of inmates had bail amounts under $10,000.  

The Northern Branch Jail is projected to cost $120 million to build, which includes $80 million in state grant funding. 

Click here to read the full Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury report on Sheriff’s Department Detention Facilities.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.