Feb 16, 2011 11:08 PM by John Reger

Behind the Bars: SLO County Men's Jail

Overcrowding in our county jails is a big problem and getting worse. Santa Barbara County failed to vote for a jail expansion, San Luis Obispo County is pushing for one costing $35 million, and the Governor wants to move low level offenders from state prisons to county jails.

KSBY is looking at the problem in a series called Behind the Bars, starting with the San Luis Obispo County Men's Jail.

On a recent day, new Sheriff Ian Parkinson gave us a rare tour when the jail population was 583 inmates, 65 over capacity.

Three-quarters of the inmates are at this particular jail on felony arrests like murder, armed robbery and rape. Sixty percent are awaiting trial, or serving less than a year sentences for misdemeanors. They're controlled by 13 correctional deputies per shift.

The West Dorm has reinforced glass instead of iron bars. Two large rooms hold 104 minimum and medium security inmates. Like everyone in jail, it costs $86 per day to keep them here. There's a shower and bathroom upstairs and an open area downstairs for eating, reading, TV and phone calls. Only one officer oversees the entire dorm.

"When it gets overcrowded like it is right now there's personality conflicts. We get a lot of fights in this area," said Correctional Sergeant Denise Lang.

A third of the jail was built in 1972, the rest by 1993. You recognize the main jail by the old style bars. It houses maximum security inmates and men with discipline, medical or mental problems. They live in cells built for one, two, four or eight men without much more than a toilet and a bunk. Many of the cells are jammed from ceiling to floor so inmates are sleeping on cots on the floor.

"We could keep building and building and building and the truth is we will probably never have a facility large enough if our focus is solely on housing inmates," said Sheriff Ian Parkinson. "We've got to expand our focus on other ways of keeping inmates out of custody."

107 inmates need medication for psychiatric issues. County Health staff at the infirmary monitor the inmates. Two-thirds are on prescription drugs for everything from diabetes to opiate withdrawal.

The more modern West Housing area has several modular rooms where inmates are segregated by crime, criminal sophistication, gang, and threat risk. Violent inmates are kept in lockdown units.

"You're able to control the inmates a lot more," said Senior Corrections Deputy Robert Crout about the lockdown cells. "There's a common day rom area with individual cells in the back so if you have a disturbance you can lock an individual inmate down in a cell as opposed to a dorm where there's only a bunk area."

Inmates are moved along hallways marked with yellow lines. They walk on the inside against the wall, never more than five inmates per deputy. There's constant movement to and from visits with attorneys or the two hours a week allowed with family. Plus there are trips to counseling, addiction, or job training programs, or any of the eight outdoor exercise yards, where all but the most violent inmates get to spend three hours a week.

"The minute you walk into this building you know that at any moment anything can happen," said Sergeant Lang. "You're dealing with a lot of dangerous people here."

Most inmates aren't cuffed in transit, so it takes complicated scheduling to keep rivals away from each other. But handcuffs and leg shackles are used on violent inmates or anyone who leaves the jail to go to court. They're searched before and after every court date.

It's one of the many rituals, repeated day after day by the people who live and work behind the bars of the San Luis Obispo County Jail.



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