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Both Jailers, Jailed Find an Oasis in Vista

TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Marmack talks about jail escapes, and he looks around to knock on wood, but he can only find steel and concrete.

As a sheriff’s captain and commander of the County Jail in Vista, Marmack knows that somebody will escape from his jail, or any jail, sooner or later.

But, in a countywide jail system reeling from a multitude of embarrassing escapes, Marmack finds himself in charge of the county’s most modern--and perhaps most secure--maximum-security facility.

In the last 12 months alone, 28 inmates have escaped from the county’s jail in Chula Vista in three separate breakouts through windows. About a dozen of the inmates, including two wanted for murder, are still at large. Seven other inmates knocked their way through a wall of the El Cajon jail in a single breakout, and three are still free.

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It’s a seemingly escape-proof place of steel and concrete, of 1-inch-thick glass that can’t be shattered easily by a sledgehammer, of electronically controlled gates, of glass-encircled security booths where deputies sit at a console of gadgets and buttons to control the flow of contained humanity from a perch with a 270-degree view of jail life.

Here, inmates lose sense of compass directions--one inmate said it took him two weeks to figure which way was west. Their only view of the outside world is of sky, either through their tiny cell windows or the screened top of an otherwise concrete exercise yard.

But it’s not as oppressive as it sounds, like some giant isolation booth in the middle of North County. Not only are the deputy sheriffs who work this place singing its praises, but even the inmates--yeah, the inmates--are giving it two thumbs up.

“This place is more like a motel than a military barrack,” said Herbert Boyd, 33, who’s serving time for violation of probation and for attempted burglary. “Even the deputies here have mellowed out compared to deputies in other jails. One guy who was assigned here from another jail said he felt like he was walking into the 21st Century.”

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There’s been a jail in Vista since 1978--the old-fashioned kind, where as many as 550 inmates were squeezed into three large living areas technically rated to accommodate 246 men.

But, as North County grew, so did its population of suspected and convicted criminals, and county officials quickly saw the need to expand the Vista jail.

A two-year, $29-million construction project ended last summer with the renovation of the old jail and the addition of a bigger and newer jail. The new jail is now about twice as big as the old one and will come close to reaching its comfortable capacity of about 950 inmates this weekend as about 200 inmates from the chronically crowded Central Detention Facility in downtown San Diego--designed to handle 730 inmates but which handles as many as 1,200--are relocated to North County.

“When some of us took a tour of the Vista jail, we told Marmack that it’s a shame he’s got to put inmates in there and mess it up, because it was so pretty,” joked Capt. Ben McLaughlin, commander of the County Jail in El Cajon.

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“We’re all pretty envious of that new facility in Vista,” McLaughlin said. “I wouldn’t say inmates won’t find a way to escape, because they can defeat any security system. They’ve got the time to sit around and plan. But Vista is built in such a way to give people there a better opportunity to thwart escapes.”

One significant reason for that is that, unlike the other county jails in San Diego, the Vista facility was designed and built with the Sheriff’s Department’s direct input, right from the start.

“I was assigned to this jail in 1983, and I and a core team of deputies got involved in the expansion right from the first schematics, through the design, development and construction,” Marmack said. “This is the first time we’ve had such a loud voice in the design and construction of one of our jails.”

Marmack even attended a two-week seminar in Denver to learn how to read architectural plans and drawings so he could be conversant with the architects. Some of the deputies working on the project have their own contractor’s licenses, so they knew the nuts and bolts of what was being discussed and built.

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“We told them the philosophy of what we wanted in a jail, and they offered the solutions,” Marmack said of the architects with the firm of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum in Santa Monica. The firm has a long track record of building jails elsewhere, including an acclaimed one in Orange County.

The deputies and architects designed the Vista jail so that one guard in a control booth has a clear view at one time of 192 inmates living in six separate housing units. At the same time, he can monitor inmates as they meet with friends or attorneys in separate visitation rooms.

In the case of the county’s other jails--including the main facility downtown and jails in Santee, El Cajon and Chula Vista--the Sheriff’s Department knew little about design limitations, having been disenfranchised in the design and construction phases.

At the downtown and Chula Vista jails, there is the problem of inmates lowering string out of their windows to the streets below to pull up things such as hacksaw blades.

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And consider McLaughlin’s experience in El Cajon: “I didn’t know when I came here two years ago that our jail walls are made of drywall and Styrofoam,” he said.

“It was lighter construction material, and the county saved about $800,000 in using it,” he said, “but it’s kind of frustrating. It takes an inmate less than five minutes to kick through the wall. The only thing between them and freedom is some sheets tied together.”

Indeed, more than a dozen inmates have escaped from the El Cajon jail since it opened in 1983--including three who escaped last year and remain at large. To deal with the problem, the county has installed lights and video cameras along the outside perimeter so that deputies inside can see if any feet kick through the exterior wall. A private security firm has been hired to patrol the sidewalk outside.

McLaughlin said he didn’t know about the jail’s construction material until inmates escaped. One inmate, he said, was trying to kick out a window when his foot missed its target and put a hole through the wall instead.

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“He was pretty shocked, too,” McLaughlin said of the inmate’s short-lived serendipity. He was captured shortly afterward.

But there won’t be anyone kicking their way out of the Vista jail. The walls are 6 inches thick--concrete blocks connected by steel reinforcing bars encased in poured concrete. Marmack knows; he watched the concrete being poured.

Don’t count on crawling out through the air-conditioning ducts, either. Marmack watched as steel grates were anchored throughout the system.

A window? Good luck. Each two-man cell has a window, but it’s only 5 inches high and flush to the ceiling. If a man shaves his head and creams his scalp with lard, he might be able to squeeze out of a 6-inch window, Marmack said. But a 5-inch window--still large enough to meet state standards--is virtually too small for any adult inmate’s head.

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The window’s glass is almost indestructible, too, Marmack notes. But, if it has a weakness, it’s to a marshmallow, not a sledgehammer.

“We use to have hot chocolate packets with the little mini-marshmallows,” he said, “but we’ve stopped with the marshmallows after a guy squeezed a marshmallow between the frame and the wall. He poured hot water on it, and it started to expand.” The fact that the frame warped--even though only a little--was a lesson learned.

“This place is put together. Tight,” said inmate James Bradford, serving time for possession of narcotics.

“And this place,” added Joe Stephenson, who’s serving time for assault with a deadly weapon, “has got more (electronically controlled) gates than a prison gun tower has bullets.”

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Indeed, the Vista jail is designed so that inmates can move around--from their 36-man housing units, or modules, to visiting areas, or to exercise yards, or to multipurpose rooms for functions of groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or religious services--with as little direct contact as possible with deputies.

From their control booths, guards open and close the gates that line the hallways like hatches in a submarine, monitoring the inmates as they move from one place to another from their viewing tower.

But that’s not to say there isn’t any personal contact between guards and the inmates--80% of whom are either awaiting their trials and haven’t been convicted yet of a crime, or who have been convicted but not yet sentenced.

Like old-fashioned cops on foot patrol, deputies in the Vista jail routinely walk from one housing area to another, going face-to-face, and sometimes nose-to-nose, with inmates. It’s a practice that is used to a lesser degree in some of the other county jails, and virtually never at the downtown facility, where guards and inmates almost always talk through bars.

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The Vista setup not only allows deputies to personally search cells and make sure no one is trying to dig or pry out, but provides them the opportunity to feel the pulse of the various modules, where 36 inmates in 18 double-bunk cells spend most of their days--from sleeping to eating to watching TV to playing cards to talking on the telephone.

“When I first heard from my supervisors that I’d be walking around among them, I wasn’t sure how I felt,” said Deputy Mark Elvin, 25. “That’s not what I thought I’d be doing, from having watched the movies. But now I can see the benefits of being down there with them.

“When you walk into a mod, you can feel if there’s trouble or tension,” he said. “I walked into one mod the other day and could tell two different groups weren’t getting along. There was trouble smoldering. I saw the two guys who were causing it, and I had them moved to other mods in the facility.”

Another deputy, Mary Coburn, acknowledges sometimes feeling intimidated when she goes up to a fellow who stands “more than 6 feet tall and weighs more than 180 pounds and has been lifting weights.” She’s 5-foot-5 and 145 pounds.

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But she knows that a deputy in a control booth has his eyes on her and says the personal contact is valuable.

“We let the guys talk to us about what’s bothering them, or what they’re charged with,” she said. “You don’t know if they’re telling the truth--and that doesn’t really matter. But it allows them to ventilate their feelings.

“If a guy wants to ‘front me off’ (jail-speak for going nose-to-nose in a verbal confrontation), I’ll say, ‘If you’ve got a problem, let’s step outside the housing area, and we’ll talk about it.’ You don’t want to let that happen when you’re in a mod with 35 other guys because it could turn ugly.

“But this is good experience for us. We learn how to establish rapport, and we learn the dialect, and that will help us when we’re assigned to patrol,” said Coburn who, like other new deputies in the department, are first assigned to jail duty as their indoctrination to law-enforcement work.

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Inmates, including those who have spent time in the downtown jail, say there is less stress and tension in Vista.

For starters, even though up to 937 inmates can be housed in Vista--based on a court order--they are set apart in the 36-man housing units. With 21 units, jailers can more easily segregate inmates--maybe because of gang allegiances, the severity of their crimes, or because they are especially young or old, or are street snitches or are homosexual.

Even within the mods, inmates have the opportunity to retreat to their own two-man cells--and lock the door behind them.

“This place is well designed--not only for the safety of the people on the outside, but for us on the inside,” said one inmate, who asked that his name not be used to avoid embarrassment to his young children. Ironically, he had helped build jails elsewhere, as an electrician, and now finds himself spending four months inside the Vista jail for embezzlement.

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“If there’s a lockdown because of a problem in a mod, all the guys who have got nothing to do with the problem will retreat to their cells, and the doors will close behind them. That automatically isolates the problem guys who are still out in the main day room, and the deputies can deal with them,” he said.

In the old Vista jail--as is the case in other jails in San Diego County--many inmates are still housed in military-type barracks. If there’s a problem within the ranks, guards have a difficult time segregating the troublemakers from the bystanders.

Marmack said there’s been only one “temporary, uncontrolled disturbance"--a riot by any other name--at the new facility, and he prefers to call it geographically, versus racially, motivated. “A guy from one part of the county will get into it with a guy from another part of the county, and their friends--who tend to come from the same neighborhoods--will choose sides,” Marmack said.

“But one reason we seem to have less tension here is because we’ve got the cells, where guys have their own space, their own privacy.”

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Said Stephenson, one of the inmates: “You can walk away from trouble. You can go read or eat in your room, and close the door. But, if you were in a dorm, where could you go?”

The only barracks that remain in Vista are used by trustees--inmates who, because of their low-risk factor and good behavior, are given jobs around the jail and enjoy more freedom than regular inmates.

There are, of course, complaints about jail life. The food is never hot enough or tasty enough. And there’s a jailwide smoking ban, a prohibition that some inmates profess is “unconstitutional.”

But there’s a flip side, too. The jail--as others in the county--collect money generated by the use of collect-only telephones that are installed in each of the living areas, and from profits at the jail store where snack food and other convenience items are sold.

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This year, Marmack figures the jail will realize $66,000 in profit from those two sources--money that is earmarked for the inmate welfare fund. The fund has been used to buy six video games--available to inmates at no charge--as well as television sets, books, magazines and other amenities. Some inmates bring in their own reading material--like the one who was working his way through Scott Turow’s best-seller, “Presumed Innocent.”

Sheriff’s Department officials say the Vista jail is the closest the county has to a state-of-the-art facility. “We visited a lot of other facilities to learn from what they’ve done right or wrong, and we’ve learned from our own mistakes,” said Cmdr. Mel Nichols, who oversees the county’s jail operations.

“I’m not sure if the building materials used in Vista are any different than what we should have used all along in our other facilities,” he said. “I’m surprised it took inmates six years to find out that El Cajon (jail) was constructed of Styrofoam.”

But it’s the efficiency of the Vista jail that is one of its finest virtues, Nichols says.

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“The deputies who have worked in other facilities and are now assigned to Vista,” Nichols said, “think they’ve died and gone to heaven.”


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