Local News

Sep 27, 2010 10:10 PM by Ariel Wesler

Overcrowded jail poses safety risks

Measure "S" continues to be the hot button issue for Santa Barbara County as we inch closer to the November election.

If passed by a two-thirds super majority, the initiative would impose a half cent sales tax. That would help build a new 300 bed facility in Santa Naria and provide additional funding for law enforcement. The sheriff's office says the main jail in Goleta is at 120 percent capacity. It releases an average of 1800 prisoners annually.

In a network of security doors and wide open hallways, you might not see the overcrowding, but Santa Barbara County jail officials say it's there.

"I've been here 21 years. We've been overcrowded for 21 years, despite the additions we've made," said Corrections Sergeant Tim McWilliams.

There are 20 guards for nearly 700 inmates at the Santa Barbara County Jail, a facility rated to hold about 650 safely. With hotter temperatures and small quarters, it doesn't take much for inmates to lose their cool and the type of assaults are getting worse.

"We have a hard time keeping the peace. People get angry at each other because of the overcrowding issue," McWilliams said.

Most of the inmates are awaiting trial--a process that can keep them in jail for years before they're even sentenced. About 75 percent are in on felony charges including murder, rape, and burglary.

In some cells, nine inmates are grouped together based on type of crime and criminal history, but the county says overcrowding is making that process more difficult.

"We can't just house one brand new inmate who has had no criminal history with a person who has been to prison before," McWilliams said.

Most are repeat offenders and could be headed back to state prison. Corrections officers say early releases not only put some criminals back on the streets, but deplete the jail's workforce.

"A lot of those will be released and then we have to find others to fill their place," McWilliams said.

With a growing inmate population, corrections officers say time is critical.

"We don't have any other space. The infrastructure of the jail is breaking down day by day," McWilliams said.

Since 1999, the county has had to release 18,000 inmates early. Of those, 1,000 have re-offended while they should have been serving their original sentences. Jail officials say about a third of the inmates are gang members.

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