Orange County Challenges State on Jail-Capacity Rules

Times Staff Writer

Orange County, setting up a deliberate clash with the state, wants to put almost twice as many inmates in its new Santa Ana jail than would be allowed by California guidelines, officials on all sides of the issue have acknowledged.

The $69-million Intake-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 on Friday, and officials 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 in each of its 505 cells. But, using state money, the county built most of the cells with wall brackets that can hold a second bed, 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."

Orange County's situation is the latest example of the growing use of double-bunking in California jails. Many counties, including San Diego, wait until they have received state certification of new jails before installing the second bed, and construct kitchens, laundries and common areas that are far larger than required under the official bed count.

No Ruling Yet

Orange County officials asked U.S. District Judge William P. Gray in May for permission to double-bunk the new jail when it opens. But the state Board of Corrections questioned the move, and Gray has never ruled on the request.

The Board of Corrections has asked the state attorney general's office what sanctions might be imposed if the county proceeds. In response, the county is holding off on the double-bunking plans.

Another interested observer is American Civil Liberties Union attorney Richard Herman, who in the past has battled the county in court over jail overcrowding and treatment of inmates. "Double-bunking," Herman said, "leads to litigation."

Anticipating a legal challenge, officials designed the new jail with larger-than-usual, 80-square-foot cells and with extras such as more showers and recreational space than a smaller-capacity jail would 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 who helped design 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. Al Olson, would not comment on the double-bunking.

For nearly 10 years, Orange County has been working under a federal court order to relieve severe overcrowding in its jail system. With nearly 3,800 inmates currently housed in its five jail facilities, the county is exceeding the state's minimum jail standards by almost 1,000 inmates, Sheriffs Department records show.

The overcrowding has forced authorities to release more than 19,000 inmates so far this year. Their crimes included carrying concealed weapons, drunk driving, possession of drugs, assault with a deadly weapon and petty theft.

The new Intake-Release Center, located on Santa Ana Boulevard west of Flower Street and adjacent to the main men's jail, is the first jail building to open in the county since 1968.

Criticism From Legislators

It has been criticized by state legislators because of its cost. If single-bunked, its cost per inmate would be among the highest in the country, with estimates ranging from $75,000 to $125,000 per cell. Corrections experts said the national average is about $50,000 per cell.

When the building is double-bunked, however, its cost per bed is closer to the norm.

Opening of the jail is more than seven months behind schedule, due largely to disputes between the county and its principal contractor, Gust K. Newberg Co. of Los Angeles.

Construction was completed recently, and on Thursday the building was turned over to the Sheriffs Department. Sheriffs officials said the facility will be occupied when they have completed training deputies to operate it.

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