Inside Jail

Feb 17, 2011 10:50 PM by John Reger

Behind the Bars: Does SLO County Need a New Women's Jail?

The San Luis Obispo County jail is equal opportunity housing. Most of the inmates are men,
but about 15 percent are women, here on arrests for everything from drugs to writing bad checks to murder.

The men's jail is crowded, but new Sheriff Ian Parkinson says the women's jail is grossly overcrowded. "The facility's not built to sustain the level that we're faced with everyday," said Parkinson.

The women's jail has space for 43 inmates, but usually houses almost double that and has held up to 110 inmates. About a dozen cells are used to isolate the most violent inmates and ones with mental problems.

The Women's Dorm is a 20 by 40 foot room with one shower and two toilets. Designed for 20 people, on this day it's filled with 32 women, so many are sleeping on the floor. Hardened criminals mingle with newcomers in close quarters and seldom leave the room, most eating, sleeping and passing the day on their bunks. Many inmates sleep in stackabunks, plastic tubs with a foam pad inside.

"You saw the housing condition in there, them sleeping on the ground, it's not acceptable," said Parkinson. "It shouldn't be running that way."

Parkinson's predecessors at the Sheriff's Department and County Administration pitched a #36 million solution: a new women's jail, with 196 beds and a female-only medical facility. The state liked the proposal and approved more than $25 million in construction funds, but the county has to kick in the rest to get them. However, before committing $10 million to the project, the Board of Supervisors wanted to see more than just bricks and bars.

"What we don't want is to just add to this empire of incarceration," said Board Chairman Adam Hill. "And we don't want to just build an expensive revolving door."

Hill says the design must include dedicated areas for a full slate of new programs to break the cycle of released offenders landing back in jail. "So that the people who end up in jail, and a lot of them are committing crimes because they have drug and alcohol addictions, get the kind of services that's going to reduce the likelihood of them committing crimes again when they get out," said Hill.

Parkinson worked with experts in probation, counseling, education and private volunteers to come up with what he calls an innovative agenda, from addiction and mental health counseling to education and learning life skills. "I'm kind of going beyond that with my approach," said Parkinson. "My approach has been job skill training and we've talked in the past about teaching them a a job skill so when they get of custody they would have a way of providing for themselves."

Along with the first $10 million, the Board of Supervisors has to factor in the $1.5 million it'll take every year to run the facility, a tough call after four years of budget cuts. But if it likes the new plans, there could be more housing for the women of the San Luis Obispo County Jail, and new ways to keep them from making it their home.

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