Maximum capacity: San Diego County jails strive to keep up with soaring numbers of inmates

Maximum capacity: San Diego County jails strive to keep up with soaring numbers of inmates
Clockwise from top left: George Bailey, Las Colinas, Central, and East Mesa Detention Facilities. Photos courtesy of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department

SAN DIEGO — With the rise of San Diego’s adult inmate population resulting from new state prison legislation, county jails are on the verge of their full capacity, leaving facilities and staff straining to accommodate increased operational demands. 

More and more county authorities are utilizing inmate population management practices, including early releases and alternative custody options.

Yet, the ACLU questions whether they should be doing more.

California’s state prison realignment was instituted in 2011 when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill (AB) 109 and AB 117. Referred to as Public Safety Realignment, the legislation shifted certain detention and correctional responsibilities from the state to counties beginning Oct. 1, 2011.

The state prison realignment was designed to reduce the number of inmates in California’s overcrowded adult prisons by June this year as ordered by the state’s Three-Judge Court and affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Realignment requires felons who committed non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex crimes to serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons. Offenders who violate the conditions of their parole now serve their violations in jail instead of prison as well.

Offenders released from prison who committed non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex crimes are now supervised by county probation departments instead of state parole.

The new legislation furthermore allows county courts to split sentences, enabling qualifying offenders to serve a portion of their sentence in jail and another portion in the community under mandatory probation supervision.

As a result of realignment, more offenders are serving their sentences in county jails. And unlike non-realigned inmates, some realigned offenders are serving sentences that are several years long.

Since realignment took effect, San Diego County’s jail population has gradually risen by hundreds of adult inmates, filling the county’s seven detention facilities to the brink of full capacity.

San Diego County had an average of 4,640 adult inmates in jail per day in September 2011, the month before realignment took effect, according to data from the Sheriff’s Department.

A year-and-a-half later, in March 2013, the jail population reached an average of 5,396 inmates per day, the highest daily average since the start of realignment. The average daily population fell slightly in April 2013 to 5,387 adult inmates per day in jail custody.

Avg Monthly Pop by Fac 2009-2013 FORMAT COPY1.xlsSan Diego’s jail populations have fluctuated by hundreds of inmates for years due to influences, including changes to criminal laws and new law enforcement techniques, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

But authorities believe that the most recent inmate population rise, which began in mid-2011 near the start of realignment’s implementation, can be almost entirely attributed to the new realignment legislation.

The most recent adult inmate population increase “appears to be almost exclusively related to realignment,” said Cmdr. John Ingrassia, who oversees the county jails’ inmate populations for the Sheriff Department’s Detention Services Bureau.

Approximately 1,500 of the county’s adult inmates today would have been in state prisons had it not been for realignment, making up over a fourth of the total adult inmate population, according to Assistant Sheriff Mark Elvin.

“If you subtract (the number of realignment inmates) from our current population, we’d have a lot of beds right now,” said Ingrassia.

Moreover, realignment inmates are serving longer sentences in county jails than non-realignment inmates.

Before realignment, the average stay for sentenced inmates in San Diego County jails was 75 days, according to the 2011-12 Grand Jury Detention Facilities Inspection Report. The report stated that after realignment the new average stay was estimated to be 18 months for sentenced inmates.

As of Feb. 25, 2013, 147 inmates in San Diego were serving jail sentences that ranged from five to 18 years long, according to data from the California State Sheriffs’ Association.

Because inmates are staying in county jails longer, the adult inmate population has continued to rise even though bookings in the facilities have decreased over the past three years, according to Ingrassia.

Jail population averages for the entire county for the past several years have almost always been above the jail facilities’ 4,527-inmate capacity recommended by the state based on building codes.

Now with realignment, the inmate population is nearing the jails’ inmate population caps set by the San Diego Superior Court and the Sheriff’s Department.

The San Diego Superior Court instituted caps on the inmate populations for San Diego Central, Las Colinas, South Bay, and Vista detention facilities in 1987 as part of its ruling on a class action lawsuit about overcrowding in San Diego’s jails.

The Sheriff’s Department later established inmate capacities for George Bailey Detention Facility, East Mesa Detention Facility, and Facility 8, which were built after the court’s ruling.

The most recent daily inmate population average from April 2013 is 97.75 percent of the countywide 5,511-inmate cap set by the court and Sheriff’s Department.

“We’re always, constantly striving to stay below the 944,” said Capt. Daniel Pena referring to the court-ordered inmate cap for San Diego Central Detention Facility, which he oversees. “We know that the jail does run more effectively, more safe if we try to stay below that number.”

With most of the jails operating near the individual capacities for each facility, the captains and lieutenants who run each jail are growing increasingly concerned about bed space for the inmates.

“We really don’t have much space,” said Capt. Jim Madsen about George Bailey Detention Facility.

George Bailey, the largest facility in the county, had an average daily inmate population of 1,727 inmates for April 2013.

With a capacity of 1,888 beds for the facility, the jail is running at over 90 percent bed capacity and has been doing so since February 2013.

“My main concern really is that we are going to run out of beds,” Madsen said.

Ingrassia said his biggest concern is ensuring that every facility has enough beds for its inmates and avoiding “floor sleepers.”

So far, the county has successfully avoided having inmates sleep on jail floors since realignment, with the exception of one evening earlier in 2013, said Ingrassia. On that night, Facility 8 was closed due to renovations and 16 male inmates had to sleep on the floor due to lack of bed space in the other facilities.

The Sheriff’s Department plans to add between 100-160 beds to San Diego Central Detention Facility within the next several months, according to Ingrassia. The extra beds will better accommodate more inmates who are scheduled for court appearances at the nearby Central Courthouse in downtown.

Furthermore, the county is building a 400-bed expansion to its East Mesa Detention Facility in the hopes of alleviating the bed space issues at the male inmate facilities. The Sheriff’s Department expects it to be completed in summer 2014.

But bed space is not the only concern as far as facility capacities for the Sheriff’s Department.

The County’s only women’s detention facility, Las Colinas, is operating just above 80 percent of its bed capacity with over 150 beds to spare, according to its April 2013 daily population average.

Yet the jail lacks sufficient medical and psychiatric facilities for its approximately 790 inmates.

“(Las Colinas’) medical areas are grossly inadequate and the mental health facilities were never intended to hold a psychiatric ward,” said Ingrassia.

“Our medical area is actually a very small area. It wasn’t designed for 800 inmates,” said the jail’s supervisor Capt. Edna Milloy.

Originally built as a juvenile facility in 1967, Las Colinas is the oldest jail in the county.

The jail’s entire medical facilities consist of three small examination rooms and one office area to serve all of Las Colinas’ inmates, according to Milloy. Its medical infirmary has nine beds and its psychiatric security unit houses up to 18 inmates.

To provide the necessary services, Las Colinas has expanded its medical clinics, which are serviced by doctors contracted from University of California San Diego, and increased the number of sick calls conducted by the facility’s registered nurses, according to Barbara Lee, the Medical Services Administrator for the Sheriff’s Department.

“Las Colinas Detention Facility medical staff does a great job of delivering services even though their work area was never intended to accommodate such a volume of inmate patients,” Milloy said.

The solution for Las Colinas’ facility limitations is in sight however. The county is currently constructing a larger women’s detention facility to replace the existing Las Colinas facilities.

The new facility will have a total of 1,216 beds, 255 more than can fit in the current facility, as well as expanded medical and psychiatric facilities. The first portion of the facility is expected to open in June 2014.

Not only is San Diego’s high inmate population putting a strain on the county’s detention facilities, but it is also increasing the demands on the jails’ staff.

With more adult inmates, medical staff are required to provide more medical and mental health services in the jails while keeping wait times for these services the same as before realignment, according to Lee.

Because the department has not hired more medical staff for the jails since realignment, staff have had to work an increasing amount of overtime to cover the additional needs of more inmates, said Lee.

She said that so far for the 2012-13 fiscal year, overtime for medical staff has increased by 40 percent from the year before.

“A lot of overtime is scheduled just to accommodate the volume (of required medical services),” Lee said.

In doing so, medical staff have been able to keep wait times for inmates for medical services at the jail facilities the same as before realignment and only a few shifts have been below minimum staffing levels, said Lee.

“I think we’ve managed,” she said.

Sworn deputies are also impacted by the increased workload of managing more inmates. Sworn staff are needed to operate more medical clinics and visitations and to transfer more inmates to and from other facilities and the hospital in addition to carrying out the daily operations at each facility.

“The greatest impact (of realignment) has really been the increased work load,” said Capt. Billy Duke, referring to the effects on the East Mesa Detention Facility, which he manages.

The Sheriff’s Department has recently been hiring more deputies to work at the jail facilities, and has filled most available posts. Currently there are four open positions for sworn staff out of nearly 900 positions that are already filled, according to Elvin.

However when there are vacancies available, hiring is a challenge for the department, according to Ingrassia.

He said that it is difficult for the department to find enough qualified candidates to pass the testing and background process. For every 100 applicants, only two to three successfully complete the hiring process.

Furthermore, jail facilities can be left short-staffed when several of its deputies are on leave at the same time, a problem the department has been dealing with before realignment, according to jail captains.

Though all sworn staff positions at a facility may be filled, jails can have vacancies when staff are out for vacations, training, illness, or medical issues and when deputies are out transferring an inmate to another facility or the hospital during one shift.

As a result, facilities rely on staff volunteering for overtime to meet the minimum staffing levels set by the department. When shifts cannot be filled, facilities operate below these minimum staffing levels.

When a facility operates below minimum staffing levels, staff mitigates the issue by reducing operations and inmate movement at the jail, according to Ingrassia. In some cases, fewer inmates are let out of their cells and programs and visits are cancelled.

“Overtime has always been worked due to vacant post positions,” said Madsen of George Bailey Detention Facility.

In April 2013, George Bailey filled 96 of its 2,340 shifts with deputies working overtime, he said. During that month, the jail was unable to fill nine deputy shifts, and operated one to four deputies below its 39-deputy minimum staffing level.

He said that when George Bailey operated below minimum staffing, “We just made do.”

He added that security becomes even more difficult when the jail is running below minimum staff levels and deputies need to be sent out on unexpected transfers during the same shift.

“It’s definitely a safety issue,” said Madsen.

For the 2012-13 fiscal year so far, Central jail has spent more than double its overtime budget to fill all of the sworn staff shifts necessary to ensure the safety and security of the jail’s most problematic inmates, said Pena.

The increase in overtime was due in part to a high number of staff vacancies at the facility earlier this year as well as the department’s decision to increase Central’s minimum staffing levels during that time, said Ingrassia.

Pena said that although the facility has not had to run under minimum staffing levels very often, it’s a struggle to fill all of deputy shifts at Central.

“We don’t have enough deputies assigned to this facility,” Pena said.

Elvin, who is responsible for the operation of the Detention Services Bureau, said that the department will never be able to hit its staffing numbers just right.

The Sheriff’s Department makes staffing decisions about a year-and-a-half in advance and there is no way of predicting the future number of staff that will be on leave or inmate population exactly.

“You’re never going to be able to hit your staffing levels exactly correct because it’s too fluid of a job,” Elvin said.

“It is more cost effective to pay overtime than to hire full time staff to man relief positions because of the high cost of retirement and medical benefits,” explained Ingrassia.

But he added, “Relying exclusively on overtime to fill vacancies can lead to situations in which we have mandatory overtime and staff burnout due to working too many consecutive shifts. Therefore we strive to have a balance between the appropriate number of staff assigned to relief positions and budgeted overtime.”

The department strives to provide ample overtime budgets for each facility, Elvin said.

He also said that he is confident that department staff are capable of running detention facilities safely even when operating under minimum staffing levels.

The Sheriff’s Department has allocated funds to hire more sworn and medical staff in July 2013 to handle new operations at the new Las Colinas and East Mesa facilities.

Aside from increasing staff and constructing new facilities, the Sheriff’s Department and court authorities have utilized some options to manage the amount of adult inmates held in San Diego’s jails as realignment continues to impact the county.

Aware of the county’s growing inmate population, San Diego’s court authorities are striving now more than ever to balance being judicious with jail space while providing appropriate punishment for criminals, said Deputy District Attorney Lisa Rodriguez.

“(Realignment) has certainly made us more cognizant that we have to look for alternatives for the appropriate people,” she said. “We want to be sure there’s room (in the jails) for the people we are afraid of, not the people we’re mad at.”

The state’s prison realignment laws included a variety of alternative custody options, including split sentences, to help counties handle the influx of adult inmates who previously were held in state prisons.

“There’s more options out there than we’ve ever had before,” said Rodriguez.

But there is some hesitation by the court and attorneys to utilize these alternatives, which are new and have not stood the test of years of effectively implementation, she said.

“There’s nothing really to guide us,” she said about the new alternative custody options.

The County Sheriff’s Department has been granted a number of means for moderating county jail populations as well.

Starting in January 2012, San Diego County Sheriff William Gore decided to allow department staff to reduce the sentences of adult inmates with early release credits authorized by the state Penal Code and a ruling by the San Diego Superior Court.

The court’s ruling on the 1987 lawsuit on overcrowding in San Diego’s jails authorized the sheriff to reduce jail sentences of non-realignment inmates by 10 percent to reduce inmate overpopulation. A section of the state’s Penal Code further authorizes another 10 percent sentence reduction, which is not to exceed 30 days, for non-realignment inmates.

These credits are in addition to the early release credits that all inmates are eligible for under state law. Inmates can reduce their sentences by up to half by earning these credits with good behavior and willingness to work while incarcerated.

“The sheriff in this county is committed to keeping dangerous individuals who have been given jail time…in custody,” Elvin said.

He explained that Sheriff Gore’s decision to utilize sentence reduction within county jails was made out of concern for the high inmate population.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep the community safe, but we have these court-ordered caps that we have to keep in mind,” he said.

Because of that continued concern, Sheriff Gore does not plan to discontinue the use of early releases in the foreseeable future, Elvin said.

The Sheriff’s Department is also pursuing paying to house some adult inmates outside of the jails at private and state-run facilities, according to Elvin.

On May 1, the department began housing some offenders who are serving short sentences for breaking the conditions of their post release supervision at a privately run detention facility.

The Sheriff’s Department is also in the process of signing a contract with the state to allow 50 to 100 qualifying inmates to serve their sentences at a state run fire camp.

Yet the American Civil Liberties Union branch in San Diego believes that the Sheriff’s Department could be doing more to manage the county’s adult inmate population.

“The Sheriff’s Department has a lot of flexibility on who to keep in jail, for how long,” said ACLU Senior Policy Advocate Margaret Dooley-Sammuli.

She said that while the ACLU has not heard reports of overcrowding within San Diego County jails, the county authorities do have the ability to reduce the number of inmates in jail custody.

“The jail population is managed, it doesn’t happen to us. There are everyday policy decisions that are made,” she said.

Dooley-Sammuli said that among other things, the Sheriff’s Department and court authorities should actively pursue alternative custody for pretrial inmates, people who have been charged of a crime but are awaiting trial before being convicted or found innocent, to minimize the jail populations.

On average there are over 3,000 pretrial inmates who are held in jail custody each day in the county, according to data from the Sheriff’s Department.

“We are looking at that (pretrial inmates) as an area of the population that we could potentially add to GPS monitoring (in the community),” said Elvin.

But he added that there are concerns about pursuing alternative custody options for pretrial inmates because these offenders are considered to be somewhat of an at-risk population. He explained that pretrial inmates pose certain risks because they are new to being held in custody and can be difficult to evaluate.

As a result, the Sheriff’s Department and court authorities are still looking into the possibility monitoring pretrial inmates outside of jail custody.

On the whole, authorities from the Sheriff’s Department said that they believe that the department is managing the unprecedented effects of realignment well, citing its prevention of floor sleepers and teamwork between facilities.

“It’s tough, I won’t sugar coat it. It’s tough, but we do it,” said Madsen. “We have great support, great leaders that talk to our staff and really help our staff.”

The department is cautiously optimistic that the number of non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex-offender inmates serving sentences in county jails, who make up the majority of realignment inmates, has leveled off, according to Ingrassia.

Furthermore, the department sees the new East Mesa and Las Colinas facilities as an upcoming release, said Elvin.

But staff is aware that the inmate population could continue to rise before the new facilities are operational about a year-and-a-half from now.

“If the populations spike between now and then, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions,” said Ingrassia.

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