Northern Branch Jail construction Santa Maria
Construction on the Northern Branch Jail at Black and Betteravia roads near Santa Maria is now estimated to finish in May, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.  (Courtesy photo)

The Northern Branch Jail is now expected to finish construction in May and open within 90 days, as required by state grants that helped fund the new Santa Barbara County facility.

Construction delays have caused millions of dollars in additional costs, including extended contracts for vendors. In early January, the Board of Supervisors approved a $1.86-million increase in jail construction-related services and supplies.  

Occupancy was originally estimated for early 2019, but now the Sheriff’s Department plans to open the jail by late summer, said Chief Vincent Wasilewski, head of the Custody Operations Branch.

The cost of operating the new jail is still unknown, but was recently estimated at $19.3 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year, according to a November budget report.

That number is likely to change, since the opening date keeps being pushed and the county does not have contracts for medical services or kitchen and commissary services at the new jail.

Wasilewski said the county finished negotiating with Wellpath to provide medical services at the Northern Branch Jail and will soon bring an agreement to the Board of Supervisors for a decision.

“It hasn’t been finalized yet but preliminarily it’s going to cost a little more than what was anticipated,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Department has paid $5.5 million to $6.3 million per year for its current five-year contract with Wellpath, formerly California Forensic Medical Group, for services in the Main Jail.

Operating Plan for the Two County Jails

The Northern Branch Jail, at Betteravia and Black roads near Santa Maria, has 376 beds, and the main jail has an average daily population of 900 as of February, Wasilewski said.

That means the main jail at 4436 Calle Real near Santa Barbara will continue housing the majority of county inmates, about 600 people.

The county does not expect many cost savings from having fewer people in the main jail, and the only area they expect to close is the stand-alone Medium Security Facility, which holds about 240 inmates.

Major renovations are planned to update the run-down main jail facilities, and those could help redesign areas to require fewer custody staff, Wasilewski said.

The state awarded $80 million in funding toward the Northern Branch Jail project and requires the county to safely staff and occupy the facility within 90 days of substantially completing construction, which is estimated for May.

“I think the plan is to open it as full as we can open it,” said Commander Jeffrey Warren, who has worked on the transition team for the new jail.

Warren said staff training has been under way for several years, and custody personnel will train inside the facility once construction is finished.

Northern Branch Jail construction Santa Maria

A housing unit at Santa Barbara County’s new Northern Branch Jail, as seen under construction in April 2019, includes cells on two levels.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

“It’s bad that we got delayed, but it’s helped us because we got more prepared,” he said.

The department has been hiring custody deputies so there are enough to staff both jails, and Wasilewski said the department still has 15 positions to fill.

The Northern Branch Jail will start accepting inmates once it’s ready, and fewer will be sent south to the main jail.

Inmate housing decisions will be based on geography as much as possible, Wasilewski said. People who are arrested in the North County, and go to court in Lompoc or Santa Maria, will be housed in the new jail, he said.

More than half of the current inmates are from the North County, he said, so some people will still be in custody in Santa Barbara and transported north for court dates.  

Similar programming will be offered at both locations, said Deirdre Smith, inmate services manager.

“The worst thing that we can do is offer a program only in one of these locations and then we have to house them there just for that. I don’t want to fall into that trap,” Wasilewski said.

Smith said the main jail currently offers the Sheriff’s Treatment Program, computer skills and GED classes, peer-led groups, and some tablet-based curriculums.

The Sheriff’s Department plans to expand its GED offerings through Santa Barbara City College next semester, and will partner with Allan Hancock College for classes at the Northern Branch Jail.

Each new housing unit includes a classroom, so personnel and teachers can be moved from place to place instead of escorting inmates around, Smith noted.

The Sheriff’s Department plans to have dog training programs at both jails and vocational training in Santa Maria, she added.

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