As Gov. Brown faces down the courts over prison populations, GT looks at how realignment is unfolding locally
Santa Cruz County Jail’s (SCCJ) “recreation areas” are dark rectangles the size of a small living room with ceilings of mesh and spirals of barbed wire. The sky is visible, but the rooms are concrete walls and flooring, and depending on the section of the jail and time of day, many recreation areas remain shaded. Basketball hoops are available, but the space is barely large enough to accommodate a half-court game. There are no plants in sight, not even patches of grass.
It is immediately clear that the local jail is not a facility designed to accommodate long-term stays, but in the wake of realignment—Assembly Bill AB109, which passed on Oct. 1, 2011—state prisons have sent many of their long-term, low-level offenders and parole violators to county facilities.
Gov. Jerry Brown picked a fight with the federal courts last week over California’s problematic prisons system. A severe ruling recently left the governor with three weeks to file a plan to meet a court-ordered cap on the state’s prison population. Nearly two years ago, the state’s high court upheld the judges’ order that the prison population be capped to end “needless” prisoner deaths, but it left open the possibility of modifying the limits. In response to last week’s ruling, the governor said he cannot remove thousands of additional convicts from state facilities without a rise in crime. Federal judges have threatened to hold him in contempt of court for his comments.
Since county facilities began to implement realignment, Brown has fielded complaints from county level officials who are straining to handle increased inmate populations.
“The big issue for us is that jails were not constructed for or designed with the idea of long-term stays,” says sheriff’s lieutenant Jeremy Verinsky, who works with corrections at the Santa Cruz County Jail. “If you go look at a prison, they’ve got extensive outdoor recreation facilities, those types of things designed to accommodate people who are going to be staying for several years.”
Verinsky says the SCCJ was built for prisoners whose average length of stay was between 17 and 18 days. Prior to realignment the maximum time anyone could be sentenced to SCCJ was one year. Now, the average length of stay is 393 days, and the longest possible stay in the jail is eight years.
Local homeless activist Robert Norse says he receives regular reports and even phone calls from SCCJ inmates.
“Conditions are wretched and over-crowded,” he says in an email.
County Supervisor Zach Friend says the implementation of AB 109 is one of the largest challenges facing local law enforcement agencies, but he’d rather have the county running things than the state.
“It has been shown that the state hasn’t been successful in rehabilitation or even enforcement in many respects and having it at the local level gives our community the chance to shape the process a little better,” he says in an email. “This isn’t to say there aren’t significant challenges, but I’d rather have our Sheriff’s Office managing the process than the state.”
In response to realignment as well as longstanding overcrowding issues, Verinsky says SCCJ’s primary task has been to reduce their inmate numbers as well as the rate of recidivism. Realignment funds are allocated three ways between corrections facilities, increased parole services, and treatment programs both in and out of the jail.
Three hundred seventy people have been placed under a new electronic monitoring system, which is essentially house arrest, and 68 are currently on the system. An average of 167 people per day participate in the jail’s Work Release program, which involves tasks like picking up trash in parks and highway sides. In addition, Verinsky says, the jail is in the process of applying for funding through the state program, CA SB22, to help convert the Roundtree Campus into “essentially the county’s largest alternative high school.”
The Roundtree Campus, currently empty, was formerly a minimum-security facility. If funding comes through, the facility would be used as a transitional, army barracks style housing space where roughly 50 longer-term inmates could take job classes, work toward GED certification, receive substance abuse counseling, and work on the campus’ extensive outdoor grounds.
While she is a supporter of alternative programs to help inmates get back on their feet, Tash Nguyen of local prison abolitionist community group Sin Barras says the prospect of adding even a few beds is disconcerting. When you add beds, you fill them, she says.
Nguyen helped Sin Barras organize a rally on April 6 in remembrance of the four people who have died while in custody at SCCJ since August 2011. At the protest, a series of former SCCJ inmates spoke about their experiences within the local jail.
A former inmate who identified himself as Jerry said at the rally that he was denied his medications while in custody at the local jail.
“About three weeks ago I was right here in this jail. I was picked up by my parole agent for being under the influence of methamphetamines,” he said. “I’m on medical methadone because I’ve got the later stages of [Hepatitis C], and their answer to that was to give me essentially nothing.”
Nguyen says she has exchanged letters with inmates and gathered narrative accounts from people within the jail’s walls in tandem with Sin Barras’ efforts to increase transparency regarding the goings on within the local jail.
“A lot of the narratives we heard at our demonstration said that medical care in [SCCJ] is pretty much ‘Oh, let’s take your blood pressure, let’s get your heartbeat, you seem to be okay,’” she says, adding, “What I’ve come to realize is a lot of people want to be heard and they’re not being heard or taken care of.”
Sin Barras has pointed out that three of the four inmate deaths occurred following the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors’ decision to outsource medical services in the jail to the Monterey Bay-based company California Forensics Medical Group (CFMG), which is estimated to save $600,000 according to the sheriff’s original proposal. Nguyen points out that CFMG has a long history of lawsuits brought against it by former inmates and their families. CFMG did not respond to a request for comment.
The family of Christy Sanders, who died in custody at Santa Cruz County’s Main Jail in August, is taking steps toward suing the county, saying the 27-year-old woman was refused medical help before she died.
Verinsky would not comment on any current legal matters, but says that the inmate deaths in recent months were a series of unfortunate incidents, in no way related to the outsourcing of medical services. He points out that SCCJ has historically maintained a relatively clean track record as far as inmate deaths are concerned according to statewide statistics. He says he is confident in CFMG’s services.
Friend says the county and the sheriff have expanded medical and dental services through CMFG in response to realignment.
“This includes a full-time physician’s assistant in the main jail, on-site x-ray services, an expanded pharmacy and additional services at Roundtree in the south county,” he says.
Verinsky says at this point improving the local jail system depends on the county receiving funding from the state, but that the overarching question over what the future of our incarceration system will be is a systemic one.
“It’s too costly to try and build your way out of the prison issue,” he says, “and if you start looking at how we’ve done as a society in general, we’ve been tough on crime and extending sentences for years, and now it’s like, ‘Financially I can’t continue to support that.’ That’s a bigger question than for me; that’s a question for California. The public and society in general needs to make a determination on where their priorities lie.”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF BRADLEY STUART/INDYBAY.ORG.