Sheriff cautiously optimistic about plan to alleviate overcrowded prisons

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a $10.9 billion plan that would expand California's prison and jail capacity beginning in 2008, adding a total of 78,000 beds to alleviate an already overcrowded system.

Although the plan could improve the state's prison system, are Solano County jails able to provide the space by next year?

"I know Solano won't be ready (by 2008)," said Solano County Sheriff Gary Stanton.

The plan, backed by Democratic and Republican legislators as well as local law enforcement officials, proposes to allocate $5.5 billion toward local jails and juvenile facilities, $4.4 billion toward state prisons and $1 billion toward medical facilities.

But the governor also proposes transferring low-level and juvenile offenders from state to county facilities as a way of allowing offenders who pose a minimal public safety risk to serve their sentences closer to their communities and families. Stanton believes that poses a huge problem.

"There's a conflict. If the state winds up dumping nonviolent offenders into the county, that means they have to release some inmates out of the other end," he said. "That bothers me. I don't think people should leave jail before their commitment."
The problem stems from overcrowded jails in Solano County, as well as the state. On any given day, Solano County jails, both in downtown Fairfield and the facility on Claybank Road, hold between 1,000 and 1,100 inmates and could be overcrowded by 40 to 100 inmates, according to Stanton.

When overcrowding occurs, inmates sleep on the floor, with mattresses and blankets provided until a bed becomes available. On Tuesday night, for instance, the Fairfield jail provided such amenities for seven inmates.

The risk of having overcrowded jails, however, stems from the violence it fuels in the facilities while eliminating the ability of prisoners to be productive.

"Primarily, inmates get frustrated when they don't have the time to get out to exercise or have extra visiting hours or get extra religion time," Stanton said. He added that facilities try to bring more religious services so that prisoners have a place to receive counseling and vent.

Also, for each additional 10 inmates in jail, Stanton said, extra officers are provided, costing the county $40 an hour for each officer in overtime.

This year, the county plans to break ground at the Claybank Road facility, adding 526 beds to its 364 with a cost of $88.5 million. If Schwarzenegger's plan is approved, it could cover up to 75 percent of the cost, with a potential 25 percent match from the county.

The scheduled opening date, however, is slated for 2011, three years after Schwarzenegger's proposal could go into effect. And that leaves Stanton worried.

"We'll have to try more people on electronic monitors, work release programs, everything to make the system work," he said. "If I have to stack them up, I'll stack them up."

Stanton is also concerned on the verbiage of the plan. For example, Schwarzenneger proposes to send all nonviolent inmates back to county prisons. But what defines nonviolent, Stanton asked.

"There could be someone charged with attempted murder. Say they take a plea of assault with a deadly weapon or aggravated assault. That should be included in the violent category," he said. "I want to make sure the people are determined by the nature of the offense and not the plea bargain."

Overall, Stanton believes the state is moving forward with a plan, saying California has not built a prison facility since 1988.

"It's movement and we haven't seen that in a long time," he said. "All we've seen in overcrowding and now there is a plan. It does create a problem for the counties but over time, it will be beneficial."