Orange County supervisors were told Tuesday that the opening of the $60-million intake and release center that is being counted on to relieve overcrowding at the main County Jail will be delayed beyond its June 23 completion date.
When the possibility of a September opening for the center was mentioned at the supervisors' regular meeting, board Chairman Roger R. Stanton angrily called the delay "nothing short of ludicrous" and ordered Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates to offer an explanation today. A spokesman for Gates said he would comply.
Later Tuesday, however, Stanton said Gates had told him by phone that there might be a delay of several weeks in opening the center but not months.
"He's talking more on the order of four or five weeks to crawl through the vents to make sure there are no tools left over from the construction people, like files or anything obviously dangerous like that," Stanton said.
County Administrative Officer Larry Parrish had told the supervisors at their meeting that the opening would be delayed, perhaps until September. He said the time would be needed to install furniture and equipment, make sure automated systems work, train personnel and conduct a general "shakedown" before the first inmates arrive.
Two years ago last week, the supervisors were found in contempt of court for not heeding a federal judge's 1978 order to end overcrowding in the main men's jail. Since then, the county has expanded branch jails in Orange and El Toro, turned away some people arrested on suspicion of misdemeanors such as public drunkenness and petty theft who previously would have been booked into jail and picked an Anaheim site for a $175-million, 1,500-inmate jail.
The intake and release center has been considered a key interim solution to the overcrowding problems. It will have 288 beds for maximum-security male inmates and additional beds for women and inmates needing medical treatment.
Prisoners will be housed there while awaiting the imminent completion of their sentences or transfer to other jails.
Among the supervisors, only Don R. Roth seemed not to be surprised by Tuesday's disclosure. Roth said he toured the main jail Monday and was told that the new building going up next to it on Flower Street in Santa Ana probably would be ready in "August or September."
For months, the supervisors have been told that construction will be completed in June, three months later than originally scheduled, but they said Tuesday that they had not been told about the new delay.
Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder said she "was surprised" by the latest turn of events, "and it is unnecessary to learn this way."
"This is a front-burner issue, and it should be taking all our time," Wieder said. "And this looks like we don't care, which is the farthest thing from the truth." The delay "doesn't make anybody look good," she said.
Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said the delay was also news to him. But he then "found that I should not have been surprised" because a member of his staff who is on a county committee dealing with the problem of jail overcrowding knew of the delay.
Still, Riley said, "I don't know why it takes that long."
Stanton said that furnishing and equipping the intake and release center is "not complicated" and that the county General Services Agency can do it on a "double-speed fast track." He said he was concerned about "vague references" to time needed to train jailers.
"I don't see any reason for delays because someone cannot push a button," Stanton said.
Delay Called 'Problem'
Richard P. Herman, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney whose lawsuit against the county led to the contempt of court ruling, said the delay is "a real problem" because the number of inmates in the jail is constantly near the population limit set by the judge: 1,290 in the main housing units.
Herman repeated his past assertions that 300 empty beds at the El Toro branch jail could house jail inmates, although Gates has said that those beds are reserved for minimum-security inmates and the crowded main jail contains maximum-security inmates.
In recent weeks, supervisors have approved a series of modifications to the construction contract of the intake and release center, each of which has raised the price.
On Tuesday, they approved four separate changes at a total cost of $312,816 to revise structural frames, change sewer mains and water lines, modify electrical power requirements on food service equipment and reschedule structural steel work.
It was when the supervisors were asked to allow the builder to spend up to $350,000 more for overtime if necessary to open the center on time that the discussion of dates began.
County officials said the added costs were covered in the original $60-million budget allocation, which allowed for "contingencies."