Near-Riot Rocks Overcrowded Jail : Outburst Came as Lockups Designed to House 1,689 Prisoners Held 3,016

Times Staff Writer

San Diego County's jail shortage reverberated Thursday on several fronts, as Sheriff's Department officials reported a near-riot in the crowded central jail, a judge again urged the county to get sleeping prisoners off the floor of the downtown facility, and county supervisors renewed a feud over the location of desperately needed new jail space.

All of this took place on a day that began with 3,016 prisoners jammed into jails designed to hold 1,689 inmates--79% more than capacity.

The "quasi-riot" occurred late last Friday in a 19-inmate tank where 28 prisoners were housed, according to Cmdr. Mel Nichols, who has administrative responsibility for all Sheriff's Department detention facilities, and Capt. Jim Roache, who heads the central jail.

Provoked by "rabble rousers," the inmates tore up mattresses, jammed toilets so they overflowed, ripped out telephones, shattered a television screen and threw the glass shards at sheriff's deputies, Nichols said.

Roache did not blame the incident directly on overcrowding. Rather, he said, it reflected the fact that systemwide overpopulation means the central jail is being used almost exclusively to house potentially dangerous prisoners.

Nichols described the outburst as one of "a number of situations that could have escalated into terrible events" at county jails in the last several months.

Meanwhile, San Diego County Superior Court Judge James A. Malkus made it clear to Sheriff's Department officials that there were to be no inmates sleeping on the floor of the downtown jail by the end of August.

'Cruel and Unusual'

Malkus--the judge assigned to monitor a seven-year-old court order designed to alleviate "cruel and unusual" conditions in the central jail--issued the directive after receiving a wide-ranging update on the state of the jail system.

Alex Landon, the defense attorney who represents inmates in their ongoing lawsuit over jail conditions, had reminded Malkus that there were about 55 prisoners without beds Wednesday night in the downtown jail--a condition decreed as unacceptable under the standing court order.

"It should be zero," Landon said.

Roache reported that the Sheriff's Department was wedging 80 additional beds into the jail, and could add 40 more if necessary to eliminate so-called "floor sleepers." Crowding at the downtown center also has been reduced in the last month by speeding the removal of parole violators to state prisons, he said.

Nonetheless, Malkus noted that the central jail--where the inmate population is not supposed to exceed 750 under the court order--has topped 1,000 several times this month.

The high numbers, he said, were especially foreboding because of plans to shut down the Vista jail for a year beginning next spring. At that time, he plans to raise the population cap downtown to 1,050--a figure, he noted, that is being neared even with the Vista jail still open.

"Is there any way to stretch mortar and concrete?" Malkus asked forlornly.

While county officials were informing Malkus of several small steps being taken to lessen the crowding, the county Board of Supervisors was demanding that money be found to take more dramatic measures to deal with the jail crunch.

At a budget review session, the board directed Chief Administrative Officer Norman Hickey to find $6 million to $8 million in his proposed budget for the coming year to pay for a 600-bed temporary jail for male prisoners.

The supervisors disagree, however, on where that stopgap jail should be built.

The Quickest Fix

Supervisors Brian Bilbray and Susan Golding proposed Wednesday that the men's jail be part of an expansion of the Las Colinas jail for women in Santee. Supervisor George Bailey, who represents Santee, countered Thursday with a plan for building temporary jail facilities elsewhere in his district--adjacent to a planned 866-bed jail and honor camp on East Mesa, near the new, vacant state prison.

The board rejected the Las Colinas proposal last year, amid a barrage of opposition from Santee residents and city officials. The city feared that expansion of the jail would jeopardize redevelopment plans for Santee's town center, where Las Colinas is situated.

But Bilbray and Golding contend that the Las Colinas site--which already has an access road and sewage and water service--would afford the quickest fix for the county's jailing mess.

"We must not allow public opposition to deter this board from taking the necessary action," they said in a letter to the board. "The individual concerns of one community can simply not be permitted to outweigh the needs of the entire region."

Bailey, at a mid-afternoon press conference Thursday, insisted that the Las Colinas proposal was ill-conceived and that similar facilities could be built on East Mesa for no more money and with no greater delays.

"If we have to have temporary facilities, let's put them in a place where they could be converted to more permanent use, such as an honor camp--which wouldn't work in the middle of Santee," Bailey said. Completing an environmental impact report and fighting an expected lawsuit by the city of Santee could slow an expansion at Las Colinas, he added.

But Bilbray argued that the lack of sewage and water service or an access road to the East Mesa site, along with environmental concerns in the area, would make it even harder to build a jail there.

"We've got to do what we can when we can where we can," Bilbray said in an interview Thursday. "The one place in our criminal justice facility plan that we have not done everything humanly possible is at Las Colinas. We have a facility that can be doubled in its capacity when our other facilities are three times over their capacity."

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