Women inmates feel impact of budget cutbacks
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Last Modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 at 7:24 p.m.
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A steady decline in inmates coupled with increasing budget pressures has prompted Sonoma County sheriff’s officials to modify jail operations, including closing its minimum-security unit for women near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.
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That closure in 2010 means female inmates who previously would have qualified to stay at the less-strict North County Detention Facility are now housed in the medium/maximum-security main jail at the county’s administration center on Ventura Avenue in Santa Rosa.
That in turn has led to physical changes to the jail and some often-complex procedural modifications.
The new reality came as a shock to a certified nursing assistant from Healdsburg who assumed she would spend her 11-day sentence for misdemeanor drunken driving with access to the outdoors and other programs at the north jail, which many call “the farm.”
“I just thought it was grossly unfair,” said Shawn Bidleman, 36. “The males get to go to the farm, which is very liberal. They don’t have cells; they have dorms.”
However, with the county facing another year of budget deficits — the shortage is estimated at $42.3 million for the budget year that begins July 1 — sheriff’s officials have been asked to cut about $20 million from their budget, mostly through staff cuts.
Closing the women’s minimum-security operation was just one way to reduce correctional-officer staffing, and more cuts are coming.
“In a perfect world, budget world, staffing world, we’d open it back up,” said Capt. Randall Walker of the sheriff’s detention division. “But if we opened a female unit in the north facility with 40 or 50 people, we’d still have to staff it as if it had 60 inmates.”
Despite the department’s efforts the savings may be temporary, as county agencies are bracing for a possible influx of state prisoners into local jails.
On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed moving about 38,000 nonviolent offenders and parolees from state to local jurisdictions over four years, creating a savings of about $2 billion for the state.
Sonoma County is in a better position than many other jurisdictions to absorb state prisoners. That’s because its jail population has been decreasing for years, reflecting in part declining crime rates and changes in some sentencing patterns.
Since 2006, jail bookings have dropped from 20,000 a year to fewer than 17,000. On Feb. 23, the two facilities, which have 1,460 beds, housed 898 inmates — 119 women and 779 men. Of those, about 70 women and about 300 men were considered minimum-security inmates.
Women minimum-security inmates were moved to the main jail in part to save money, but also to to balance an increasingly complicated population of inmates who often can’t interact because of their gang affiliations, their role in high-profile cases or their mental health disorders.
A typical module in the main jail has two floors of cells that look onto a central common area equipped with telephones, tables, TVs, a book cart, a hot water spigot for instant coffee and with access to showers.
An increase in inmates with mental health concerns and gang affiliations means that fewer inmates can be allowed into common areas as part of a large group.
Bidleman said that on several of her 11 days in jail, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 6, she was in her cell for 23 hours and let out into the common area for one hour.
“I wasn’t expecting jail to be a pleasant experience, but I wasn’t expecting to be treated as a felon that held up a convenience market,” Bidleman said. “This was really incommensurate to my crime. Men who were in for the same crime would be treated much differently.”
Bidleman said she chose incarceration for her DUI conviction, a first offense, because she could not pay the fine.
Jail officials said an hour of out-of-cell time per day is well within state guidelines, which require that inmates be out of their cells for a minimum of three hours a week.
Because there are so many more male inmates, one module at the main jail is filled with only minimum-security offenders. That means that many of the minimum-security men can spend most of the day outside of their cells, depending on their behavior, because they don’t have to share the common areas with inmates from other security groups. The remaining inmates are in mixed modules, like the women, housing people held on a wide range of offenses, from violent crimes to nonviolent misdemeanors, Walker said. These different groups must take turns using the common areas.
Bidleman’s concerns highlight the effects of the shuffling required to keep prisoners separated.
“I understand how she feels on the one hand, but she had a safe stay here, which is most important,” Walker said.
Multiple classifications of inmates sharing a module require either fewer hours outside a cell or “more walls,” said Lt. Corrado Ghioldi, who has spent his 23-year career working in the jail.
Several modules have been modified to create multiple common areas so more inmate groups can be outside their cells, and more are set for renovation, he said.
“Building walls costs thousands, but it’s cheaper than a new jail,” Ghioldi said. “They maximize the space that we already have.”
The operation is further complicated by the increasing share of the women who are being held in cases involving violent behavior, said Sgt. Denise Wood, who has worked in the jail for nearly 15 years.
More women need to be segregated from the group because of their involvement in gangs, their roles in high-profile cases or because of prior violent behavior than was the case five years ago, Wood said.
Female inmates last Sunday were moved from H Module, where Bidleman was housed, to E Module, which is split into more secure areas that allow for segregation of inmates.
On Thursday afternoon, eight maximum-security inmates, including a woman charged with second-degree murder, were in the common room of E Module. A woman talked on the phone while a group watched a TV talk show and another woman stirred herself a cup of instant coffee.
When their free time was up, they returned to their cells and a correctional officer at a control board in the center of the room unlocked the doors of minimum-security inmates.
About 40 woman flooded
into the room, most heading straight for the sink to make coffee or getting in line for the phones.
Three women walked into an exercise courtyard with a basketball hoop and sat in a small patch of sunlight that made it over the high walls and onto the concrete.
“In a perfect world, they’d be out all day together,” Ghioldi said. “But this is far from a perfect world.”