Thursday, April 24, 2014

Grand jury: Yolo jail facing challenges under prison realignment

California’s public safety realignment measure has significantly changed the inmate dynamics at the Yolo County Jail, according to a Yolo County Grand Jury report released this week.

As a result, staff at the jail — formally known as the Monroe Detention Center — have had to use creative measures to avoid overcrowding and other potential conflicts, despite a decrease in its workforce due to budget cuts.

“The staff of the Center are dedicated, experienced personnel who have been vital in making the system work regardless of budget and staff cuts while always keeping the well-being of the detainee population in mind,” the grand jury concluded in the seven-page report.

The panel also found that while the jail is generally clean and well-maintained, many of its facilities — including the kitchen, laundry room and often-busy booking area — are outdated and “in immediate need of improvement.”

“I agree,” said Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto, whose department operates the jail. “But if the county doesn’t have additional funding, there’s nothing we can do. We’re struggling all the time.”

Prieto said his department is facing $3.4 million in cuts to its budget for the coming fiscal year.

Planned upgrades to the jail should be given first priority as funds become available, and the county Board of Supervisors should tour the facility by the end of this year to determine any additional staffing or structural needs, the grand jury recommended.

The report also suggests that county officials review the policies under which service contracts are approved without a competitive bid, citing the jail’s $3 million medical services contract that has not undergone a competitive bidding process since 2005.

Opened in 1988, the Yolo County Jail was built to house inmates whose cases were making their way through the court system, or whose resulting sentences amounted to a year or less. Its original capacity was set at 267, but has increased over the years to 455.

Then came AB 109, the public safety realignment measure, which as of October 2011 has called for inmates convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual and nonserious felonies to serve their time at the county level, with the intent of relieving California’s overburdened state prison system.

Today, roughly 150 of the Yolo jail’s 455 beds — about 32 percent — are occupied by AB 109 inmates, whose presence has had several effects on the jail’s dynamics, the grand jury found during its November 2012 visit, including:

* Inmates serving longer sentences — including one with multiple sentences totaling 18 years — resulting in the jail reaching its maximum population more frequently than in previous years. This forces the jail to release some inmates before their full sentences have been served.

* An increase in state prison culture at the local level, including “a more hardened, criminal mentality” among some inmates who require two-officer escorts instead of one.

* Escalating medical and dental care costs for the jail’s more long-term inmates.

In-home custody programs, record-tracking software and a color-coding system to classify different segments of the jail population have been implemented to ease overcrowding and avoid potential inmate-mingling conflicts.

“I think it will get progressively more demanding as time goes on, and we’re going to be even more impacted in the next two to three years,” Prieto said Thursday. “I’m not 100 percent sure how we’re going to handle all this in the future.”

Even as AB 109 went into effect, the Sheriff’s Department saw its jail workforce slashed, with 16 correctional officers alone being laid off last year due to budget cuts, according to the grand jury report. Those remaining have been assigned furlough days and a 7 percent pay cut.

“The Center is operating at a minimum staffing level,” resulting in some mandatory overtime and supervisors stepping in to cover employees who are sick or on vacation, the grand jury reported.

Still, “the staff tries to implement new programs when they feel there is a positive impact for the inmates and a potential decrease in recidivism,” such as counseling, education and vocational programs, the grand jury found.

— Reach Lauren Keene at or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene


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