Fear, Safety: Mixed Bag Near Main Jail

Times Staff Writer

There are times when Alfredo Mora's wife can't sleep at night. That's when she huddles next to him on their bed, especially when the fear is strong.

"She didn't sleep the night we heard about the jail escape. In fact, she didn't want me to leave the house the whole weekend," Mora said Friday.

With each passing police car and each siren that wails in front of their small home on Santa Ana Boulevard, Alfredo Mora and his wife, Consuelo, momentarily drop what they're doing and listen as the seconds tick by.

They, like other residents in the predominantly Latino neighborhood surrounding the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana, play a guessing game to determine how far the car travels before the siren stops.

The farther the better.

A reporter who sampled opinion in the neighborhood Friday found a range of emotions about the jail. Many people complained about men who were released from jail knocking on their front doors asking for food, a drink of water, or, in some cases, bus fare.

Orange County supervisors voted Tuesday to construct another county jail, housing up to 1,500 inmates, at the corner of Katella Avenue and Douglass Road in Anaheim. With environmental studies still to be completed and hearings held before a final decision is reached, a question that may be raised is what kind of impact the main Santa Ana jail has had on neighborhood residents and businesses since it was built in 1968.

Overcrowding at the central jail--a stone's throw away from the Moras' front yard--has gone beyond a critical point. A year ago, U.S. District Judge William P. Gray found Sheriff Brad Gates and the county Board of Supervisors in contempt for not heeding his 1978 order to improve conditions at the jail.

Gray set a limit of 1,500 inmates effective last Jan. 15 and 1,400 effective April 1. Thursday night the jail housed 1,409 men, a Sheriff's Department spokesman said.

The main jail is located near the city's Civic Center, where streets teem with city, state and federal employees during the week. On weekends, the area is transformed into a ghost town except when events take place at the city's stadium, including the weekly swap meet there.

For the most part, it is a decaying urban area filled with older, wood-framed homes and apartments. Much of the surrounding area is owned by the city's Redevelopment Agency and scheduled to be torn down and replaced with new high-rises and apartments for upscale tenants.

Most Have Little Fear

While Mora, who has lived in the neighborhood eight years, and an uncle, Miguel Sanchez, had complaints, a surprising majority said they lived "peacefully" with little fear about residing in the shadow of the four-story jail.

"Hey, we have police cars traveling up and down the streets here almost every five minutes. You think an escapee is going to stick around here?" said Dolores Cisneros. She and her six children live in a rented house a block away from the jail's rear entrance. She's been there for five years

"I've never been robbed. Maybe because it's a corner house but nobody ever bothers me," Cisneros said.

But what about the possibility of jail escapes?

"Yes I heard about that, about the two men. But I didn't feel threatened. On the contrary, with all the police, I felt safe."

Last Jan 26 two prisoners, one a convicted murderer, scaled a wall at the jail and escaped. Most residents said they recalled that the escape did send fearful tremors through the community. Both men have since been captured and county authorities now are trying to extradite the convicted murderer from Massachusetts.

3 Large Dobermans

When the subject of protection was raised, Angel Flores, 60, an apartment manager, pointed to his three large Dobermans and said, "I have no fear."

A tenant said that if an escapee ever jumped the fence inside the apartment parking lot, "he'll be eaten by those three."

Lucille Smith said she moved into the neighborhood only three weeks ago, "too short for me to even find out where to shop."

Smith, manager for Bell Courts, a new 46-unit apartment complex, spoke highly of the new development's "inner courtyards" that block a view of the jail next door.

"If you want to see the neighborhood outside you can climb to the roof where we have sun decks," she said.

The complex was opened in January. Two tenants have already moved in and another two are due soon. With rents at $525 for a studio and $675 for a two-bedroom unit, Smith said Bell Courts is seeking single professionals--particularly state or federal employees who work in the civic center area--as tenants.

Bail bondsmen, whose tiny offices dot major thoroughfares surrounding the jail, expressed a lack of concern about its proximity.

"I've never felt any concern," said bondsman Don Mehr. "And I work nights, weekends and odd hours."

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