Orange County Sheriff's Department officials on Tuesday began cutting back visiting hours severely at the county's five local jails, angering inmates' rights advocates.
Officials said they are also considering reducing the hours of educational and religious programming available to inmates in the face of the county's massive budget crunch.
By the time the new visitation schedule is fully implemented at the end of the month, visiting hours will have been cut by more than half, with most of the new facilities open to visits two days a week instead of four.
While sympathetic toward the county's budget problems, some civil libertarians questioned why inmates must bear the "first line" of cuts, especially when tensions and crowding in the jail already appear to be high.
"The lines (of visitors) are pretty long already, and this is going to cause a great hardship on the people who want to visit," said Robert Cohen, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County.
Rebecca Jurado, a lawyer who has worked extensively on inmates' rights with the American Civil Liberties Union, said local advocacy groups will be watching closely to see how the new schedule works out.
If it significantly curtails the inmates' ability to see their families, she said, legal action might be necessary to "correct" the problem.
"It sounds like a pretty slim schedule," she said.
One inmate, who was released from the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana on Tuesday, predicted that the cutbacks will have a demoralizing effect inside the jail.
"People look forward to visits. It's their only contact with the outside," said the Costa Mesa man, who asked not to be identified. He said he had been jailed for 65 days for driving with a suspended license.
Jeremy R. Krans, the assistant undersheriff in charge of facilities planning, said that the reduced schedules still go far beyond the minimum two hours of visitation time a week required by the state.
He added that visitation hours was a likely area in which to reduce costs and staffing because visitors are scarce in many time periods now, anyway.
"Why should we staff it . . . if two-thirds of the visitors' slots are empty now?" he asked.
Krans said the Sheriff's Department can ill afford to waste staff time in the midst of the fiscal crunch.
The county is facing a projected budget shortfall next fiscal year of more than $65 million. As a result, the Sheriff's Department--like other county departments--has been hit in recent weeks with orders from the Board of Supervisors to cut positions, freeze vacancies and reduce budgets.
Krans said the new schedule will allow the department to shuffle personnel and assign deputies on visitors' shifts to jail security, where he said some shifts are now understaffed by 20% to 30%.
It is not known how much money the reduced schedule may save.
But Krans said: "The aim here is to better utilize the personnel we have. We're going through some severe budget constraints. . . . I've never seen it this bad. We're trying to make the best of what we have."
The need for added security personnel has become critical, he said, because the department in November began bringing more serious offenders into the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange and the James A. Musick Branch Jail in Irvine. Officials said the move was prompted by crowding at the main facility in Santa Ana.
Since more serious offenders were brought in, there have been 14 escapes from Theo Lacy and Musick in the past four months, Krans said. While that represents a similar pace to the 1985-86 period, it is a fairly sharp jump over the escape rates in more recent years, he said.
The county's five jail sites include Theo Lacy in Orange, Musick in Irvine, the Central Men's Jail, the Central Women's Jail and the Intake/Release Center, all in Santa Ana.
Inquiries on the new schedules at each site should be made by calling the individual facilities.