Overcrowding at SLO County women’s jail

Mary Ann Phillips — with the nonprofit counseling group Captive Hearts — talks to an inmate on the maximum-security side of the women’s jail. The new facility might allow all inmates to meet with volunteers, as a counseling room, a classroom and day rooms will be available within a housing unit. Click here to see more of the proposed changes »

The scene at the San Luis Obispo County women’s jail could be called controlled chaos: About 70 women are sleeping, reading, playing cards, receiving counseling or watching television in an area built for 43 inmates.

Sometimes, the number tops 90.

And when that happens, plastic beds and thin pads are pulled out so women can sleep on the floor. The temperature in one of the dorm-style rooms needs to be monitored so it doesn’t become too stuffy. Counseling takes place through cell doors or in a hallway.

And some of the women argue and request to change cells, a result of too many people squeezed into small spaces.

“Living in a walk-in closet with 10 other women — it’s frustrating,” said Correctional Deputy A. Andrews, referring to the women’s maximum-security area. “It’s become more volatile. They don’t get along as well as they used to because they’re in such tight quarters.” Andrews asked that her first name not be used for safety reasons.

Plans for a new women’s jail aim to solve those issues and provide more space for the inmates to receive vocational training. (They currently participate only in custodial and minimal laundry work.)

A separate medical facility would include a dental suite, eliminating the need for inmates to be driven to an outside dentist, said Chief Deputy Rob Reid. He couldn’t put a dollar value on the change, but said that it will save time and give the inmates better care.

The plans have been in the works for several years, but issues with the current facility were identified much earlier. A grand jury report concluded in 1998 that the now 24-year-old women’s facility should be enlarged and that inmates should have equal access to all vocational training offered at the jail.

“It was all go, go, go, and then it fizzled out with the state budget,” said Lt. Michelle Cole, who oversees the Sheriff’s Department’s court services, and honor farm and alternative work programs at the jail.

In 2005, county administrators told The Tribune they couldn’t afford the estimated $22 million in construction costs needed for a new facility.

Now, a $25.1 million state jail construction grant is available to pay for the bulk of the proposed $36.1 million expansion, with the county covering the remaining cost.

A new security system accounts for $2.9 million of the increased cost; the earlier $22 million estimate also did not include other costs such as environmental impact documents, project management, or soil testing, Reid said.

The Board of Supervisors will decide on Tuesday whether to restart the women’s jail project. If it does, the new jail would be constructed first, then the existing women’s jail would be torn down and the new medical facility built in its place.

No privacy

On a recent Tuesday inside the jail, several inmates met with volunteers from Captive Hearts, a nonprofit organization based in Grover Beach that provides counseling for addicted inmates and other women in need.

One woman talked quietly with a volunteer on a concrete bench in a hallway, one of the few places for them to sit apart from the other inmates.

Another woman housed in the maximum-security portion of the jail received counseling through a slit in her door — other inmates were out of their cells at the time, so she had to remain in hers.

“There’s nowhere to go and everywhere you do go, there’s always people coming and going,” said Wendy, who heads up the women’s volunteer jail ministry for Captive Hearts. She requested her last name not be used out of safety concerns. “If we’re sitting in the dorm doing ministry, they’re coming in to pull women out for sick call (going to see medical staff). It’s a constant series of interruptions there.”

Wendy, who has counseled women in jails in San Antonio and Wichita Falls, Texas, said she was appalled at the complete lack of privacy at the San Luis Obispo County facility. The more crowded the jail is, the more personality problems are magnified, she added.

Sleeping in ‘boats’

The jail is divided into several areas: On the minimum-security side, one dorm-style room houses inmates who have been sentenced to the women’s honor farm, which gives inmates with nonviolent and nonserious offenses job skills.

Another large room next to it houses women waiting to go to court and those who have already been sentenced. The room was built for 10 women but can hold up to 22 beds.

Sometimes, it houses more than 30 women, and those who don’t get a bed end up sleeping on plastic shells — the women call them “boats” — on the floor between the bunks. They share one shower and two toilets.

When she was booked into County Jail in December, 26-year-old Amber Smith was the 32nd person in the dorm room. She spent a week in the room, sleeping on the floor, before she was transferred to the honor farm room next door.

“It’s the size of a classroom,” said Smith, an Atascadero High grad serving time for a drug possession charge. “You’re already irritated and frustrated. It’s crowded. It gets stuffy. There’s a lot of people bickering over petty stuff.”

Now in a room of 14 women, Smith has a bed. She works the night shift on the honor farm, cleaning and emptying trash cans in different parts of the jail. On busy weekend nights, the honor farm inmates clean up vomit in patrol cars and holding cells.

When asked about what classes might benefit her, Smith, who has two children, said she missed a parenting class that was offered before her December arrest.

“That would have been beneficial,” she said.

A long hallway separates the minimum-security area from the maximum-security cells. When women are strip-searched, or when they have to trade in their street clothes for county-issued red or blue jumpsuits, they do so behind a partition in the hallway.

Seven cells in the maximum-security area house two women each, and two additional cells house up to 10 each. Four “isolation” cells hold those women who exhibit violent behavior, discipline or mental health issues.

The majority of the 71 women at County Jail on a recent day were being held for probation violations or for writing bad checks, driving under the influence or possessing narcotics.

Others were there on charges including burglary, felony DUI, petty theft, stolen property and cruelty to a child. One has been charged with murder, another with second-degree murder.

The numbers fluctuate, but often about half the women there have yet to be sentenced.

New facility

The new women’s jail facility would hold 196 women in 24,395 square feet, including the yard, and special isolation and medical cells. Unlike the current facility, it would be accessible under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

It would also have two rooms that could be used by the volunteer ministers, or for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

The separate medical building would have three classrooms, a conference room, and two office spaces that could be used for men and women’s vocational training and educational programs.

Currently, only one classroom — a converted storage space — is available for the men’s and women’s jails, all 500-plus inmates, who can take classes to prepare them for the GED exam, as well as classes in computers, English as a second language and life skills.

Despite the frustrations, Cole said the correctional deputies don’t talk much about the need for more space.

“One of the things I think we do really well is deal with what we have,” she said. “We realize it’s overcrowded, but until we have a new jail, complaining is not going to help.”

What the new women’s jail would provide

Here’s a look at how the current jail compares with the proposed replacement facility:

Current Proposed
Size 5,020 square feet 38,000 square feet (two levels)
Number of beds 43 196
Classroom space* 600 square feet (one classroom) 1,853 additional square feet (2,453 total square feet, or seven classrooms for men and women)
Medical facilities One-bed “clinic,” three offices for mental health services, one records storage room, pharmacy About 8,000 square feet with two medical exam rooms, three mental health suites, dental suite, staff work space, pharmacy, four program rooms, inmate waiting areas
Correctional deputies Minimum of two at one time Minimum of three to four at one time, depending on honor farm activities
* The new facility would also provide 16,000 square feet for programs and classes intended to reduce recidivism, including dayrooms in group-living areas. Source: SLO County Jail
Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.


  • The women’s jail: A timeline

    The need for an expanded women’s jail was acknowledged more than a decade ago, but the fate of the project has been tied to the economy. Here is a recap of the project’s history:

    • 1985: Average daily population at the women’s jail is 23.
    • 1998: Average daily population at the women’s jail is 60.
    • 1999: The county grand jury says the women’s jail should be enlarged to accommodate a growing number of inmates and to provide inmates with equal access to all vocational training offered at the jail.
    • Sept. 28, 1999: In its response to the grand jury, county administration points out that the budget includes $150,000 to fund Phase I of the women’s jail expansion. It’s expected the improvements will be made over the next several years.
    • July 5, 2000: The female inmate population at the County Jail has nearly tripled in the past 15 years.
    • May 12, 2005: The county has not allocated funding for a larger women’s jail, even though inspections of the women’s facility since 1995 detail overcrowding. County administrators say they can’t afford the estimated $22 million needed to build it.
    • Sept. 9, 2005: After ending the fiscal year with an extra $11 million, the county budget office recommends the windfall be put toward a new women’s jail, along with several other projects. Of the unanticipated money, $3.8 million is set aside to help pay for the jail.
    • July 2006: The county awards the design contract for jail expansion to DMJM architectural firm (now part of AECOM).
    • 2007-08: The county grand jury reports that the women’s section of the jail has an area rated for 43 beds but contains 82 sleeping spaces, which include mattresses placed on the floor.
    • Sept. 20, 2008: A state panel conditionally approves $25 million to expand the women’s jail in exchange for Paso Robles and the county agreeing to host a re-entry facility for soon-to-be-released prison inmates.
    • Sept. 22, 2010: The county Board of Supervisors votes 4-1 to defer the jail expansion project, after expressing concern about “the growing empire of incarceration.”

    What’s next

    • Supervisors on Tuesday will discuss whether to restart the women’s jail project and begin negotiations with the state on contracts necessary to receive funding.
    • If the supervisors move ahead, construction could begin within nine months to a year. The women’s jail and the medical facility could be ready in about three years.
    • If the supervisors do not restart the project and no further funding is available, the situation at the jail will remain the same, said Chief Deputy Rob Reid.

    A breakdown of project costs

    • A 38,000-square-foot women’s jail housing unit, estimated to cost $27.5 million.
    • A new 7,400-square-foot medical facility, estimated to cost $6 million, to serve male and female inmates.
    • A new security system for the entire jail complex, estimated to cost $2.9 million.
    • An optional project to expand and remodel the existing intake and release center in the jail, estimated to cost $5.5 million.

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