Faced with staggering jail overcrowding pressures, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department finds itself unable to open a new 2,800-inmate high-tech jail complex because the toilets won’t flush and the security doors won’t shut properly.
The maximum-security North County Correctional Facility, which authorities had hoped would help ease the space crunch, was due to begin accepting inmates last spring, but now will not open until at least mid-February.
Sheriff’s officials said that soil and other suspended particles in the well-water supply are clogging the pipes in the $131-million jail, located on the grounds of the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho in the hills below Castaic. Technical glitches in a state-of-the art, computerized security system have made it difficult to quickly open and close the doors to prisoner dorms, they added.
Meanwhile, sheriff’s officials, concerned that defendants are taking advantage of an early release policy also designed to help ease overcrowding, are revamping the policy to ensure that criminals serve at least a minimum amount of jail time.
More than 100,000 inmates convicted of misdemeanor offenses have been released from jail anywhere from 15 to 37 days early since May, 1988, depending on fluctuations in the jail population. Jail officials say that some defendants who would customarily pay a fine rather than serve a minimal sentence are now requesting jail, knowing they will not have to serve any time.
Under the revamped policy, to take effect by the year’s end, those convicted of misdemeanors will be released after serving about 70% of their sentences. The policy will benefit inmates serving the longest terms; the maximum misdemeanor sentence is one year.
“You are trading off the high-end sentences to create bed space so low-end people can do some time,” said Sheriff’s Cmdr. Mark Squiers. “But you shouldn’t be able to walk away without some punishment, even if it’s only a few days in jail.”
The new policy comes at a time when the daily jail population is surging past a longstanding federally imposed limit of 22,388. Aggravated by the fact that there were no court hearings during the four-day holiday weekend, authorities said they had more than 23,000 prisoners in custody early this week at the 10 county jails. Together, these lockups have a state-rated capacity of only 13,464.
For years, the Sheriff’s Department has undertaken an intense juggling act to cope with the dizzying logistics of overcrowding. For example, more than 2,000 inmates are transported daily to 40 courthouses throughout the county in a jail busing system that is the largest of its kind in the free world.
In addition to freeing convicts early, sheriff’s officials have vigorously fought for the construction of additional jail space. But they have faced tough going.
Last August, the Board of Supervisors approved a 2,408-bed expansion of the Men’s Central Jail near Union Station. But neighborhood groups filed suit and the Los Angeles City Council directed the city attorney to explore mounting its own legal challenge.
Thus far, the new North County jail has been used only as a set for an upcoming Hollywood production starring Jim Belushi.
Authorities are scurrying to open the 680,000-square-foot facility, which will include a bakery, textile factory and print shop designed to save the county money on supplies while helping inmates develop occupational skills.
A portable water filtration system is due to be installed by mid-December to clear the pipes, said Sheriff’s Cmdr. David Hagthrop. Next year, permanent water circulation, aeration and filtration facilities will be added, the official said.
“The type of water coming in was clogging up the valves in all the faucets in just a few hours,” explained Hagthrop, who oversees the 2,865-acre Honor Rancho complex, which presently houses about 7,500 minimum- to maximum-security inmates. “Years ago in the planning phases, we felt water quality would be sufficient where we wouldn’t have to have the exotic filtration system. We turned out wrong. Nature is unpredictable.”
Problems with the security system are being handled by its private installer, Thorne Automated Systems.
Designs call for more than 14,000 door locks, cameras and emergency communication devices to be operated through a sophisticated computer system. Deputies stationed at a Star Wars-like console in a central command post will be able to view 28 television monitors linked to 128 cameras posted throughout the jail’s five main buildings.
Unfortunately, there are still bugs in the system’s highly advanced computer program.
During early tests, the system shut down when operators in the command post attempted to electronically open and close several doors at a time.
“There were also delays in the opening or closing of doors under emergency conditions,” said Hagthrop. “In other words, it just took too long for the response from the computer to the door.”
Greg Milbourne, Thorne’s on-site project manager, said that snags are to be expected in a system so complex. A printout of the operating program is nearly two feet thick.
“This is the most complex job I’ve seen in 14 years and I came from the nuclear power industry,” said Milbourne.
Experts are hoping to reprogram the computer by year’s end, he said. Next will come a month of testing, which will include mock riot and fire drills.
“The only complexity is starting it up,” said Tom Thuerbach, regional manager for Thorne, an international firm. “Once it’s started up . . . it’s tremendously reliable.”
The long delay has had at least one beneficial sidelight, said John Hager, the ACLU’s lead Los Angeles attorney on jail overcrowding.
“They have already begun to hire and train the staff that’s needed to run this massive new jail,” Hager said. “So while the facility hasn’t been opened, some of the extra staff is now available and they are able to work in the other jails and reduce the impact of overcrowding.”
“It really reduces the tension and helps keep things under control,” he said.
Once open, the North County jail is due to house inmates charged with murder, rape and other felony offenses as they await trial or sentencing. The in-house bakery will produce 25,000 loaves of bread daily for jail cafeterias, and prisoners will manufacture underwear for inmates in the sewing shop.
The jail will also serve as a transfer station for defendants being transported daily in sheriff’s buses to courthouses in the San Fernando Valley.