Orange County, setting up a deliberate clash with the state, wants to put almost twice as many inmates in its new Santa Ana jail as would be allowed under California guidelines, officials on all sides of the issue have acknowledged.
The $69-million Santa Ana Intake and Release Center, urgently needed to ease severe overcrowding in the county’s jail system, already is $2 million over budget, half a year late and plagued by a rash of glitches related to its state-of-the-art design.
Still, the building is almost ready to open. The Sheriff’s Department took reporters on a tour of the facility Friday and said some inmates might be moved in as early as this week.
Under state Board of Corrections guidelines, the new jail should not hold more than one inmate for each of its 505 cells. But using state money, the county built most of the cells for two people each, increasing the capacity of the jail to 889.
“The Board of Corrections, they have guidelines, but they’re not enforceable,” said County Administrative Officer Larry Parrish. “We’re not eager to violate any rules . . . but that may be more preferential than putting bad guys on the street.”
The Board of Corrections has asked the state attorney general’s office what sanctions might be imposed if the county proceeds with its double-bunking intentions. Aware of this development, the county for now is holding off on the double-bunking plans.
ACLU Attorney Watching
Another interested observer is American Civil Liberties Union attorney Richard P. Herman, who in the past has battled the county in court over jail overcrowding and the treatment of inmates. “Double-bunking,” Herman said, “leads to litigation.”
In anticipation of such a legal challenge, the new jail was designed with larger than usual 80-square-foot cells and with extra facilities, such as more showers and recreational space than single-cell jails require. If taken to court, county officials hope to demonstrate to a judge that the inmates are not cramped.
“The real world is that sure as shootin’ they are going to have to double-bunk this thing,” said Charles O’Raftik, an architect of the jail. “And when the inmates launch litigation, saying they don’t have adequate facilities . . . they won’t have a case.”
The Sheriff’s Department spokesman, Lt. Richard J. Olson, would not comment on the double-bunking.
For nearly 10 years, Orange County has been working under federal court pressure to relieve severe overcrowding in its jail system.
With nearly 3,800 inmates housed in its five jail facilities, the county is exceeding the state’s minimum jail standards by almost 1,000 inmates, Sheriff’s Department records show.
In addition, the overcrowding has forced authorities to release more than 19,000 people so far this year who otherwise would have been incarcerated. Their crimes included carrying a concealed weapon, drunk driving, possession of drugs, assault with a deadly weapon and petty theft.
The new Intake and Release Center, located on Santa Ana Boulevard west of Flower Street, next to the main men’s jail, will be the first jail building to open in the county since 1968.
It has been criticized by state legislators because of its cost. When the building is single-bunked, its cost per inmate is among the most expensive in the country. Different estimates range from about $75,000 to $125,000 per cell. The national average is about $50,000 per cell, said Michael O’Toole of the National Institute of Corrections in Boulder, Colo.
When the building is double-bunked, however, its cost per bed is closer to the norm.
County officials have said that the overall cost of the project is about $60 million. But that amount does not include almost another $7 million for the cost of the property or the environmental impact report that was required.
The total bill reached $69 million last month when county General Services Agency director Bert Scott reported that construction was running about $2 million over budget.
Also, opening of the jail is more than seven months behind schedule, largely due to disputes between the county and its main contractor, Gust K. Newberg Co. of Los Angeles.
In October, 1986, when Newberg first reported that it was going to miss the originally scheduled April opening by more than three months, Parrish, Scott and Sheriff Brad Gates met and considered firing the company. They concluded, however, that it would delay the project even more and add to the cost if the main contractor was switched so late in construction.
Court Action Possible
County officials say the disputes with Newberg might still end up in court. The county refused to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in added costs that were charged by Newberg. And since Sept. 8, under terms of the contract, the county has charged the company $3,000 for every day it is late.
The construction was completed recently, and on Thursday the building was turned over to the Sheriff’s Department. Departmental officials say the facility will be occupied when they have trained deputies to operate the building and its computers. They are also conducting final security checks of the building.
The new building contains a large computer that, for the first time, will enable the Sheriff’s Department to electronically keep track of all the Orange County jail inmates--where they are incarcerated, what their release dates are and when they are due in court.
Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Heacock said Friday that the department was hoping to put about 48 minimum- to medium-security prisoners into the jail as early as this week to help deputies test the new systems.
But as soon as the new jail opens, the county is likely to find itself back in federal court. ACLU attorney Herman said he will immediately ask U.S. District Judge William P. Gray to reduce the number of prisoners allowed in the men’s main jail so that it will correspond to state standards.
That could absorb about half of the beds in the new jail, if it is not double-bunked.
No Ruling from Gray
The county asked Judge Gray in May for permission to double-bunk the new jail when it opened. But the Board of Corrections stepped in and questioned the move, and Gray never ruled on the request.
Norma Lammers, executive director of the state board, said she understands the county’s difficult situation with conflicting state and federal orders. Nevertheless, she wrote Parrish at the time that she was asking the attorney general about what sanctions would be required if the county proceeded with the double-bunking.
She said the board could decide to withhold state funds from the county for the new jail or, possibly, from future jails.
Parrish said the county was not trying to violate any rules. “But we’ve already been instructed by the federal court in what sequence we violate them,” he said. “The last law that’s going to be violated is the federal court order.”
Board of Supervisors Chairman Roger R. Stanton, whose district includes the jail, declined to return repeated telephone calls over four days last week.
Herman was unsympathetic with the county’s situation. He said the size of the cells is not the issue. The reason the state prohibits double-bunking is for safety, he said.
“There are regular cases of gang rape in the jails and the way to prevent that is by putting people in single cells,” Herman said. “The supervisors and Parrish are absolutely committed to double-bunking the (jail). For a couple hundred beds, they are taking a tremendous risk.”
Inside the gleaming cells of the newest jail, the steel hinges for upper bunks are already secured to the walls. The second beds, however, have not yet been installed.
With state-of-the-art jail design, the traditional gray bars have also been replaced with glass. And the door locks are all computer-controlled at a shielded station from which a deputy can watch a semicircle of 96 cells on two levels.
The new jail will serve as the intake and release center for the county’s entire jail system. It also has 96 medical cells for injured prisoners.