Every workday, laborers stack another 3,000 concrete blocks and fresh mortar onto the thick walls of Ventura County's new Todd Road Jail, despite serious doubts about where the county will get the money to operate it.
The jail, midway between Ventura and Santa Paula, is scheduled to open in early 1995 with a projected staff of 78 sworn officers and nearly 100 civilian workers. But the county lacks the money to hire 53 of the officers and nearly all the civilians, said Cmdr. Donald Lanquist, project director for the Sheriff's Department.
Opening any fewer than two of the new jail's four 192-bed cellblocks would not be cost-effective, he said.
"The end of construction's scheduled for September, 1994, and after we go through a shakedown period, we could be open by early '95," Lanquist said as he walked through the bustling construction site last week. "We've got some time. Hopefully the economy's going to turn around a little bit by then and we can afford to hire the people we need."
Undersheriff Richard Bryce said he is working closely with the county's chief administrative officer, Richard Wittenberg, to find money for the jail staff.
Without the new jail, the county would face federal court orders to reduce crowding at the main jail in Ventura, Bryce said. There, 1,050 inmates are crammed into space originally designed for 400--some even sleeping on cots in the day rooms.
With or without money for staff, the $53-million Todd Road Jail is grinding inexorably toward completion, propelled by $31 million in state construction bond money that will be lost unless spent on schedule, Bryce said.
It is a massive project.
Nearly a dozen contractors are weaving together miles of steel reinforcing rods, laying thousands of concrete blocks and pouring tons of cement into a 750-bed jail that sheriff's officials say will rival the Ventura jail for space and ease of operation.
"We're getting really good-quality work," said Sgt. Jim Sliester, the jail's construction coordinator, who also oversaw construction of the East Valley Sheriff's Station in the late 1980s. "The guys that are out here are good craftsmen. They're very glad to have the work, especially these days."
The main Ventura County Jail has 220,000 square feet of space--80% of it devoted to inmates and the remaining 20% to sheriff's staff, who have had to squeeze their increasing numbers into too-small offices, Lanquist said.
The new jail will have 230,000 square feet of space, 60% for inmates and 40% for staff, he said.
When completed, the Todd Road Jail will house only sentenced inmates, while the Ventura County jail will be returned to the duty it was meant for--a maximum-security holding pen for suspected felons and other inmates awaiting trial at the adjacent Hall of Justice.
"What this facility does is, it fills the void for medium-security inmates that are at the main jail now," Lanquist said.
Each of the new jail's four cellblocks will hold approximately 96 cells in six housing units--each unit with its own day room and 1,000-square-foot outdoor exercise yard.
The living units surround a control booth in each cellblock, and the cellblocks surround a main control booth at the heart of the complex. Civilian jailers in the booths will control the lights, doors, temperature and other mechanical functions, while two deputies patrol each of the cellblocks.
One cellblock will have a seventh housing unit to hold inmates in "protective custody," such as child molesters, who often are disdained and attacked by other inmates, or belligerent gang members who must be separated from rivals, Lanquist said.
The Todd Road Jail inmates will live in 70-square-foot, double-bunked cells, with 35 square feet of space in the day rooms for each inmate--about the same as in the main jail and the minimum required by law, he said.
Each unit also will have its own television and lunch tables, where inmates will eat meals brought on trays, as in the main jail.
But sheriff's designers have tried to improve on the design and operation of the main jail.
Before construction began, they had inmates build a full-scale wooden mock-up at Camarillo Airport of two Todd Road Jail housing units and a control booth, Lanquist said.
The mock-up helped them work out cell floor plans, draw clear sight lines from the control booth to the cells and even reduce the size of the control rooms themselves so that each could be managed by one civilian.
"If we hadn't done that, we would have had to have two people in there," he said. "Jails are very expensive to build. If you don't build it right, the costs can go up when you have to change it."
The designers also put in second-floor mezzanines with closed-circuit TV jacks in each of the housing units, to be used for special programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, religious meetings or educational programs.
Lanquist said inmates see the mezzanines as "power positions" in daily cellblock life, and thus might be encouraged to join programs there that could help them.
The new jail also will have a 25,000-square-foot building to house the kitchen, laundry and workrooms. Inmates in the workrooms might be assigned to sew uniforms, assemble furniture and electronics components, or do other work that could help earn money to run the jail.
"We're going to do all the landscaping with inmate labor, and all the indoor custodial work," Lanquist said. "We'd like to work every one of these inmates as much as possible."
Bryce said inmates may even be put to work in the 157-acre lemon orchard surrounding the jail.
"The goal for the entire facility is to put every single inmate that's housed there in some kind of productive labor that in some way or another offsets the cost of their incarceration," he said.
Other innovations include a water-saving vacuum plumbing system that will use a half-gallon of water per flush instead of the customary 3 1/2 gallons.
A California Department of Corrections study determined that each prison inmate flushes his toilet an average of 25 times a day, Lanquist said.
"Inmates like to flush toilets," he said with a bemused grin. "You do a cell search, and they flush. They're playing games with you."
"We even did sound testing on these toilets," said Lanquist, who ran the main jail in Ventura from 1982 to 1986. "You can flush them with less than half a gallon, but it makes a sound kind of like a toot. And we didn't want it to make any kind of a noise that would interest the inmates so much that they'd want to flush it more."
While construction continues, opponents of the jail are still pushing two lawsuits that they hope will stop the jail from having too jarring an impact on the green belt of farmland between Ventura and Santa Paula.
A group calling itself Citizens to Save the Greenbelt has a suit pending in Los Angeles Superior Court in an attempt to block permits from the California Department of Fish and Game that would allow construction of a flood-control wall in a nearby barranca, said Rosemary Woodlock, the group's attorney.
The group also is awaiting action on another suit in Santa Barbara Superior Court that accuses the Ventura County supervisors of violating an agreement to preserve the greenbelt, Woodlock said.
She said her clients have accepted that the jail is being built. But they want to block any future expansion, which could allow it to grow into a 2,300-bed facility and, she said, ruin the green belt.
Meanwhile, Santa Paula officials complain that they feel the jail was forced upon them in violation of an agreement with the county to protect the green belt.
"It's just the beginning of the end" of the rich citrus region, said Santa Paula City Councilman John Melton, a staunch opponent of the jail.
"Probably it'll make it very difficult for the ranchers who are trying to farm down there," and it could persuade some to sell their land to developers, he said.
Two years ago, a Ventura County judge threw out a lawsuit filed by the city to block the project.
"The people that I know that were opposed to it and upset by the action of our supervisors are still upset. They haven't forgotten," Melton said. "It was shoved down our throats. . . . We're resigned to it because there are no alternatives but to be resigned."
Undersheriff Bryce dismissed the opposition and called the lawsuits "a nuisance and a costly thing for the taxpayers. We've tried every way to go the extra mile to make sure they (neighboring landowners) feel very comfortable."