A Look Inside Troubled Downtown Jail : It’s Not Pleasant for Those Who Stay Behind Bars

Times Staff Writer

San Diego County’s Central Jail is an imposing facility, with its thick concrete walls and cast iron cages, a fifth-floor “murderer’s row” and green “rubber rooms” for inmates who are psychotic, suicidal or simply out of control.

The downtown jail was built in 1960 to house maximum-security inmates, but the 300 men who enter the front gate each day appear relatively harmless. They are for the most part an oddball collection of transients, drunks, thieves, drug users and dealers, and reckless drivers arrested on traffic warrants.

Only a handful of these people are charged with crimes serious enough to warrant a bed on the jail’s upper floors. The remainder--96% of all those arrested on misdemeanors and 65% of all felons--spend as little as a few minutes in a cramped holding tank or less than three days on a two-inch-thick bunk bed in a drab dormitory setting.

The commander of the jail, Capt. C.J. Roache, calls his facility a “gigantic processing plant.” Muscular deputies armed only with handcuffs direct prisoners through a maze of doors and hallways the way a rancher moves a wandering herd of cattle. Many of the inmates appear slightly dazed and some have trouble talking.


As soon as a suspect is brought to the front door, he is informed of the charges against him and issued an orange wristband for misdemeanors or a blue band for felonies. The inmate is told to step into “the phone tank” after a locking metal gate slides open. Against one wall are four collect-call telephones and two pay phones. An inmate has three hours to contact relatives, an attorney or a bail bondsman to arrange his release.

For most inmates, this is the only place they see in the main jail until they are released. The size of an average bedroom, the tank is often jammed with angry men sprawled out on benches. Inmates complain that the air does not circulate here. The room reeks with the smell of intoxicated inmates.

The phone room is regarded by deputies as potentially the most dangerous location in the entire jail. Everyone who enters the building is placed here before being searched. Many are still seething over their arrests. Fights are commonplace. If you fall asleep, your wallet and watch are history.

“We have had people in there with guns, chains, knives, hypodermic needles, you name it,” Roache said. “It can get really crowded in there, and if a lot of people come in quickly, it can erupt into an altercation. There can be a lot of hostility and aggression in there on busy Friday or Saturday night.”


On a recent Friday night, a car salesman brought in for being drunk in public shouted at a couple of bums. A minor shoving match ensued until the car salesman stumbled over a man curled up on the floor.

Many inmates are released on their own recognizance within minutes without being searched, fingerprinted or photographed. The standard for being cited and released without being booked depends on how crowded the jail is.

Others wait up to three hours to post bail or sober up before they are let go. Those who stay are moved through a side door to the search room. Here they will be strip-searched and then booked. Last year, 122,000 inmates were booked into the central jail.

A deputy wearing surgical gloves tells six men to step into the search room, take off all their clothes and stand behind a red line. Deputies say they occasionally discover men with bullet holes and knife wounds.

The search is completed with the efficiency of a drill sergeant barking orders to a line of young recruits at boot camp. As the deputy searches through piles of clothing, he places keys, rings, wallets and other belongings in a separate envelopes. The deputy tells the men their jail rights and privileges. They are few.

“Cigarettes are available for $1.25 a pack. You can buy up to four packs. I suggest you buy as many as possible. You’ll be in here 2-4 days . . . Breakfast is served at 4:30 a.m., gentlemen. . . I advise you be here on time. Any questions on what I said?. Anybody not been here before?”

No one raises a hand. That makes 49 out of 50 inmates on this night who have visited the jail at least once before. Deputies say they get so much repeat business that they know many of their customers on a first-name basis.

The search begins. Every cavity and private space on the body is thoroughly checked.


“Lift up the left foot! Wiggle your toes! Turn around! Grab your cheeks where the sun don’t shine and cough! Harder! Mouth wide open! Lift the tongue up! Bend over at the waist! Shake your head sideways! Say, ‘No, I don’t want to be here . . .’ ”

And on and on.

The entire search is taped by a camera perched above a doorway. The Sheriff’s Department receives many complaints that deputies use excessive force during these searches. Most of them are squelched after the videotapes are reviewed, Roache said.

“This is the first chance to get a good look at them without their clothing,” Roache said of the search room. “Once these guys get beyond this point, we know they have nothing on them.”

Drunk drivers are spared the humiliation of being processed through the jail. They are taken to the rear of the jail, where they are placed in cells to dry out.

After the search, inmates step into the booking room to put their clothes back on. Many are released if relatives have posted their bail. Others await interviews with counselors at the central intake booth, a county program designed to release suspects with a judge’s approval if they do not pose a danger and are considered likely to appear in court. If they do not qualify for the program, they may be eligible for a supervised release.

Those who still remain in jail are assigned a bed in a narrow room equipped with toilets and phones. Others are transported by bus to one of the county’s five other facilities built to relieve overcrowding.

After three days, most inmates have been released or posted bail. Those who do not have money or friends to pick them up are given a one-way bus token to their residence. Many are released in the middle of the night when buses do not run. So they join the substantial transient population downtown.


The 3% of misdemeanor arrests and 35% of felons who are held past three days are given a jail uniform and escorted upstairs to share a two-man cell.

The men who make it to the second through fifth floors fit the profile that planners had in mind when they constructed the central jail--they are violent and sometimes vicious criminals who are considered an extreme danger to the public, the deputies and their fellow prisoners.

If the inmates display good behavior, they can qualify for the trusty program and work as a jail employee. For eight hours of work doing a variety of jobs, they get better food and living privileges and 50 cents a day.

MISDEMEANOR CASES: WHERE THEY GO 40% Booked and released within three to four hours. 25% One-quarter post bail, sober up or have their charges dropped within 24 hours. 20% One-fifth of all misdemeanor suspects taken to jail receive a citation ordering them to appear in court and are released immediately. 11% Released by a judge within one to three days. 4% After three days, 4% are assigned a jail cell on an upper floor.