Jails on the brink: County inmate populations balloon, pushing jails beyond capacity

Jails on the brink: County inmate populations balloon, pushing jails beyond capacity
The Sheriff's Department is working to mitigate the safety and health risks of overcrowded jails, while eagerly awaiting the opening of two new facilities. Photo by Rachel Stine

REGION — Over two years after the implementation of California’s prison realignment, the adult inmate population in San Diego County’s jails is still rising, nudging the facilities closer to the brink of maximum capacity and sometimes beyond it.

One of the county’s detention facilities is operating over a court-ordered inmate population capacity, and last fall over 200 inmates had to sleep on the floor at one jail due to lack of appropriate housing.

The Sheriff’s Department is working to mitigate the safety and health risks of overcrowded jails, while eagerly awaiting the opening of two new facilities.

Detention policy experts are monitoring the jails closely to ensure that constitutional housing standards are met. But, they also hope that the County will rely less on jail and more on alternative custody options and reentry programs for offenders.

While the realigned inmate population appears to have stabilized, officials cannot pinpoint a time when San Diego County’s jail inmate population will level off.

Realignment’s Impacts on County Jail Populations

Initiated in October 2011, California Assembly Bill (AB) 109 and AB 117 required low-level felony offenders who would have previously been sent to state prisons to instead serve their sentences in county jails. The legislation was designed to fulfill the state’s Three-Judge Court order for Gov. Jerry Brown to reduce the number of inmates in California’s overpopulated prisons.

County jail populations throughout the state have been growing ever since, as jails take on more inmates and house inmates longer as they serve lengthier sentences. San Diego County’s inmate population is no exception.

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

In January 2013, the County jails housed an average of 5,192 inmates each day. By December 2013, the average daily inmate population rose to 5,715 inmates.

“The increase in our population is almost exclusively related to realignment,” said Cmdr. John Ingrassia, who monitors the jails’ inmate populations for the San Diego Sheriff Department’s Detention Services Bureau.

Currently over 1,500 inmates in the county’s jails are there because of realignment and prior to October 2011 would have been sent to state prisons, he said.

SD Jails Facility Daily Population Aug 1-Nov 20 Converted Added.Realigned offenders are those sentenced for non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex felonies or for violating the conditions of their parole.

Realigned offenders in jail for felonies are serving longer sentences due to the increased severity of their crime than non-realigned offenders who are in jail serving sentences for misdemeanor crimes.

Before realignment, sentenced inmates served an average of 75 days in San Diego County jails, according to 2011-12 Grand Jury Detention Facilities Report.

As of February 2013, San Diego County jails housed 147 adult inmates serving sentences between 5 and 12 years long, according to the California State Sheriffs’ Association.

In late 2013, the inmate population in county jails reached as highs near 6,000. On Nov. 18, 2013, the total adult inmate population in county jails was 5,985 inmates, which took up 93 percent of the 6,451 total beds available in the seven facilities.

While the daily jail population constantly fluctuates from one day to the next, it has continued to increase since the implementation of realignment.

The number of realigned inmates sentenced to serve time in county jails is showing some sign of leveling off, according to Ingrassia.

But county officials cannot say for certain if the inmate population in local jails has reached a stable number.

Risks of Operating Over Capacity

The increase in inmates from realignment is causing the Sheriff’s Department to operate the county’s jails above recommended capacities.

Years before realignment took effect, San Diego County’s seven adult jails almost always operated with a total population above the 4,527-inmate capacity recommended by the state based on building codes.

But as of mid-2013, the County’s growing inmate population surpassed the 5511-inmate jail capacity set by a 1987 San Diego County Superior Court order and the Sheriff’s Department.

“(The jails) are over capacity, and the Sheriff is well aware of that,” said ACLU Senior Policy Advocate Margaret Dooley-Sammuli.

Operating San Diego County’s jails over capacity poses risks to the safety and health of the inmates and the correctional deputies who work there.

“When you put too many people in an area that was designed for a smaller number, then you get all kinds of collateral matters,” explained San Diego criminal defense attorney Alex Landon.

Landon was one of the prosecuting attorneys in the overcrowded jail lawsuit against San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff in the late 1980s.

The case resulted in court-ordered capacities on the county’s jails, three of which are still operational today.

The four newer jails are governed by self-imposed capacities set by the Sheriff’s Department.

Landon and the ACLU monitor all of the jails’ populations on a weekly basis to make sure the County remains in compliance with the court order and inmates are housed in safe and humane conditions.

Overcrowded jails can cause increased tension between inmates, which can result in higher instances of fights and sexual assault, Landon explained. Food sufficiency can become an issue.

Too many inmates in too small a jail facility can also have an impact on correctional deputies who work there.

“The staff is also taxed because of the fact that they are not equipped to be dealing with that number (of inmates) in that environment,” he said.

With staff supervision stretched over more inmates, recreation time and visits can be restricted.

One of the most telling symptoms of overcrowding in detention facilities is when inmates have to sleep on cell floors due to a lack of beds.

“We are very sensitive to the idea that there be no floor sleepers. That’s always an indicator that things have gotten out of hand,” Landon said.

Since realignment was implemented, there was a period of several weeks when inmates slept on the floor at one of San Diego County’s jails.

Most nights from Sept. 3, 2013 through Oct. 14, 2013, at least one and as many as 27 male inmates slept on the floor at San Diego’s Central Jail, according to data from the Sheriff’s Department. A combined total of 215 inmates slept on the floor over the course of those nights.

Central jail has a state-recommended capacity of 944 inmates and at the beginning of August 2013 contained 980 beds.

During the period of floor sleepers in fall 2013, the facility’s population ranged from 862 inmates to 985 inmates.

Ingrassia explained that the Sheriff’s Department had housed the large number of inmates at the facility at that time because of the jail’s proximity to the downtown courthouse.

A change in Central’s inmate population, mainly a rise in the number of inmates requiring protective custody housing, resulted in some inmates to sleeping on the floor, he said.

Landon and the ACLU immediately reached out to the Sheriff when inmates began sleeping on the floor at Central.

“People need not to be peed on because they are sleeping under the toilet,” said Dooley-Sammuli.

The floor sleeper matter was resolved when housing modules were converted to accommodate more inmates in need of special housing and 240 beds were gradually added to Central jail between Oct. 28, 2013 and Dec. 6, 2013, Ingrassia said.

While the floor sleeper matter was addressed, the county’s South Bay Detention Facility has been operating above its court-ordered capacity since mid-2013.

As of late 2013, South Bay has housed over 500 inmates on an average day, above its 431-inmate capacity set by the court. On some days, its population has peaked near 550 inmates.

The Sheriff’s Department has been able to provide beds for all of the inmates in the facility, and maintains that by housing low-risk, healthy inmates there, that staff is able to meet all of the inmates needs despite the large population.

“We believe we are meeting (inmates’) needs and housing them in a safe and humane manner,” Ingrassia said.

Aware of the overage, both the ALCU and Landon have decided not to sue the county for being in contempt of the court order because they believe that the inmates at that facility are still being housed in healthy conditions.

They acknowledged that with the exceptions of the floor sleepers at Central, the Sheriff’s Department has been able to provide custody conditions that meet inmates’ constitutional rights despite the overcrowding.

Currently, the county is constructing a new women’s facility and expanding the East Mesa Detention Facility, which will add hundreds of new beds and more facility space for inmates. Both are anticipated to open this summer.

Ingrassia said the hope is that the Sheriff’s Department will not have to run facilities so close to capacity once the new facilities are finished and operational.

The Sheriff’s Department currently is on a hiring spree to provide 250 more sworn staff to work at the new and existing facilities. Over the next four years, the department plans to hire a total of 800 new deputies.

Alternative Custody Options and Reentry Programs

The Sheriff’s Department is also looking to alternative custody options and reentry programs to reduce the number of offenders in jail custody with the help of the county’s justice partners.

The majority of the population in San Diego County’s jails consists of inmates who are not serving sentences. Rather, those inmates are either awaiting arraignment, meaning they have not been charged for a crime, or awaiting trial and cannot make bail.

Often, these people end up being released in a matter of days.

Many are released after arraignment by a judge allowing release on a person’s own recognizance based on the promise that the person will return for all future court dates.

“The majority of (the jail) population is being released in seven to 10 days and not returned to custody,” Ingrassia said.

To reduce this particular jail population, the Sheriff’s Department started a pilot program in January 2014 that allows low-risk inmates who meet strict criteria to be released prior to arraignment.

Through the program, inmates are assessed for previous criminal history and certain risk factors. A judge can then view that inmate’s assessment online and has the option of releasing the inmate from jail to home detention before the arraignment hearing.

The pilot program is only available for female pre-arraignment inmates at this time.

Ingrassia said that inmates must meet strict criteria before being released and so far only a few women have been released on home detention.

But the pilot program could be expanded if it successfully cuts down on the jail populations and people facing criminal charges appear for arraignment hearings as promised.

Dooley-Sammuli stated that the small pilot program is a step in the right direction, but more alternative custody options should be considered, particularly for pre-trial inmates.

She argued that jails should be reserved for people who pose a risk to public safety.

She said was against keeping people in jail because they cannot afford bail, and added that people sentenced to time in custody but do not pose a public safety risk should be considered for alternative custody methods.

“Incarceration is vastly over utilized,” she said. “The Sheriff has a power to hold (offenders) accountable in another way.”

Landon agreed, saying, “We are better off if we don’t have to pay a tremendous amount of money to warehouse somebody that doesn’t need to be in custody.”

In addition to the pretrial pilot program, the Sheriff’s Department has recently expanded its work furlough and residential reentry programs, which allow offenders to continue working at their jobs or look for employment while serving their sentences.

With the help of the District Attorney’s office and the courts, the Sheriff’s Department is also providing inmates in custody greater access to more programming, including substance abuse, educational, professional, and parenting classes. The justice partners anticipate that the enhanced programming will help offenders productively integrate back into society, which will reduce recidivism.

Landon said that overall the Sheriff’s Department has done well maintaining the county’s jail populations and conditions since the lawsuit in the late 1980s.

“Obviously with realignment, it’s put new pressures on (the Sheriff’s Department),” he said.

He expressed that the enhanced programs and custody alternatives should be expanded even more.

“In the end if we can keep people out of the system and successfully integrate them back into the community, we have better individuals, a safer community, and a better society,” Landon said.

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