Special Report

Placer’s jail of the future still sitting empty

Prison culture in county jail could get costly
By: Scott Thomas Anderson, Editor
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Flushing away prisoner habits

One way county jail inmates currently try to strike out against correctional officers and Sheriff’s department staff is by organizing mass coordinated toilet flooding. Inmates conspire with one another to stuff clothing and other items down their cell toilets, and then all flush at the exact same time — sending raw sewage pouring throughout the jail facility. While this trick has worked at the Auburn jail, inmates will have little luck with it at the new South Placer Adult Correctional Facility in Roseville. The innovative jail has computer monitoring and operation of all toilet flushes. When tensions rise in the inmate population, the correctional officers can use automated technology to take control of how many times the toilets flush.

The new South Placer Adult Correctional facility is a state-of-the-art jail that could help increase inmate and officer safety, keep more criminals behind bars and lessen the county’s exposure to prisoner lawsuits  — all of which are goals experts see as vital in California’s era of criminal realignment.

The facility could also offer a wider array of rehabilitation programs for inmates, lowering Placer County’s recidivism levels.  

The only problem is the high-tech jail, which broke ground in 2009, is still sitting empty due to budgetary challenges. The Placer County Sheriff’s Department hopes that will change by 2014.

The new era of incarceration          

Since California’s law AB 109 went into effect in late 2011, the Auburn jail has seen its average daily inmate population jump from 523 to 598. According to Sheriff’s officials, the first full year of realignment saw a noticeable increase in inmate fights, along with gang-fueled prison culture.

The Auburn jail was never designed for long-term incarceration. AB 109 now requires all county jails to hold would-be prison convicts for multi-year sentences or put them back on the streets on alternative sentencing. Inmates heading into the Auburn jail with prior state prison histories will notice a serious decrease in the amenities, programs and yard space now available to them. 

Just before retiring in December, the jail’s then-commander, Placer County Sheriff’s Capt. George Malim, told The Press Tribune that inmate grievances and potential precursors to lawsuits were up in the Auburn jail since California began sending it inmates who would have otherwise gone to state prison.   

“We have seen a rise in grievances and even a few writs,” Malim said. “The law says the inmates have to exhaust all of their immediate remedies before they can file a lawsuit. Once they go through that process, they can try to push a legal action.”

There are currently no monies in the AB 109 mitigation funds for counties to cover rising costs of inmate-related legal actions.

A class action lawsuit was filed against the state in 2001 over prison conditions, medical procedures, suicide rates and mental health treatment. Known as the Plata case, in 2009 it lead federal judges to order California to reduce its prison population by 137 percent. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in 2011.

AB 109, better known as Realignment, was passed a few months later.

Given that medical treatment and suicide rates were the defining factors in the Plata case, the Sheriff department’s new jail commander, Captain Wayne Woo, does see the pending South Placer Adult Correctional Facility as a means of keeping some inmates and attorneys from wanting to file similar legal actions against the county.

Once activated, the new jail will have an entire medical wing with full dental suites, negative-pressure cells for patients with tuberculosis, positive-pressure cells for patients with AIDS and padded rooms for inmates who are on suicide watch, or are at risk for self-injury.  

In its initial phase, the jail will also have 450 prisoner beds which, if used in conjunction with the Auburn jail’s 480 beds, could alleviate overcrowding.

Safety and recovery  

With gang activity expanding in the Auburn jail, the need for more celled beds, as opposed to dormitory-styled beds, has become increasingly important to keep officers and inmates safe.

“The level of sophistication with the inmates has definitely gone up since AB 109,” Woo said. “There are a lot more prison politics and gang rules being observed while prisoners are in our custody.”

Once up-and-running, the South Placer Adult Correctional Facility will have 390 celled beds, a major increase from the Auburn jail’s largely dorm-style bunking. The additional cells allow for more inmates to be housed in medium and maximum security situations. The new jail’s design also has the medical wing centralized between its various housing units, limiting the physical distance correctional officers have to move prisoners.  

“The philosophy is to move the inmates as little as possible,” said Placer County correctional officer Jake Mucher. “When you move large blocks of prisoners at once, that’s when problems happen.”

An underground tunnel has already been built for moving inmates directly to the county’s main courthouse at the neighboring Santucci Justice Center. The tunnel makes escape attempts on the way to court virtually impossible.

Another advantage the South Placer Adult Correctional Facility has over the Auburn jail is more room for substance abuse treatment, adult education, religious gatherings and criminal rehabilitation programs. Each jail housing section has a multi-purpose room that can be used for everything from narcotics anonymous meetings to job training courses. The jail includes a computer lab for inmates that can double as a space for rehab endeavors.  

In a very direct sense, the new jail is designed to remove the mystique around county incarceration: Members of the public who visit prisoners will have a full view, through glass, of the entire jail housing unit. Visitors will be able to see into most cells and have a partial view into the inmate communal area.    

“People who come to visit will pretty much know everything that’s happening in here,” Mucher said. “Sometimes an inmate may be telling their family it’s one way, but now those family members can see inside and realize the place is actually really clean and secure.”

The future

Though the new jail is almost entirely completed, Placer County is still working to finalize a funding plan to open and staff it. Sheriff’s officials estimate the facility will cost around $21 million annually to operate.

“Running a jail comes with a pretty large price tag,” Woo confirmed. “The Sheriff’s department is working closely with the county’s executive office to look at the situation and see where the revenue will come from … we’re examining options like shutting down parts of the Auburn jail once the new facility’s up to help off-set the overall costs.”

Woo added that the Sheriff’s department and county officials plan to make an updated presentation to the Placer County Board of Supervisors on options for jail funding within the next few months.

“We’re hoping to see it opened by sometime in 2014,” Woo said. “We’re definitely feeling impacts in our current jail from AB 109. We’ve seen a rise in unserved sentences for inmates — instances where jail overcrowding has forced us to just give the prisoner credit for time served.”