By JULIE JOHNSON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The sheriffs of Sonoma and Mendocino counties joined law enforcement from across the state in Sacramento this week to bend Gov. Jerry Brown’s ear about the impact of the diversion of state prisoners to county supervision.
From dental floss added to the commissary, metal doors replacing wooden ones and an increase in violence, the impacts have been wide-ranging, North Coast jail officials said.
The average stay at the Sonoma County Jail has increased from 22 days to 287 since the so-called realignment of prisoners to county custody began in October 2011.
“We are hiring staff, but that isn’t keeping up with influx of inmates,” Sheriff Steve Freitas said. “We have extreme overtime rates and worker-related injuries and burnout related to that.”
Jails were once places where inmates stayed for a year or less.
That changed in 2011, when the state began transferring inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to county jails to alleviate crowding in California’s $9 billion-a-year prison system. The decision followed a string of legal defeats in federal court over conditions at the prisons, which were holding more than double the number of inmates for which they were designed.
Now, the longest terms currently being served are 15 years for a woman at the Sonoma County jail and 14 years for a man in Mendocino County.
The longest sentence for a California jail inmate is a 43-year term for a man in Los Angeles.
“That was beyond what anyone had thought about,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said. “No one would have thought it would have come to this.”
The average daily population at the Mendocino County Jail jumped from about 195 inmates prior to October 2011 to about 275 inmates today, Allman said.
Realignment boosted Sonoma County’s female inmate population the most, by about 33 percent, Detention Division Lt. Mazen Awad said. About 16 percent of women incarcerated would have gone to prison prior to the change. Women now take up two wings at the main jail, rather than just one.
For the population as a whole, a daily average of about 1,078 inmates through May 22, about 20 percent of people currently in the Sonoma County Jail would have previously gone to prison.
Whereas jails were set up to manage urgent health matters until release, they are now facing long-term health needs among those people who will spend years of their lives in jail.
Medical staff now must start planning for annual dental cleanings and other preventative care previously unnecessary with the majority of inmates staying less than a month.
Health care “is truly the 800-pound gorilla,” Freitas said.
Counties are on the hook for medical care, but currently there are no funds coming from the state dedicated to boosting jail health services, Freitas said.
The county isn’t yet feeling the pinch because of an existing contract with the company that provides the jail’s health care, Monterey-based California Forensic Medical Group.
But the Sheriff’s Office will renegotiate its contract in January and is bracing for what could be a steep increase in costs, Freitas said.
The so-called realignment inmates have far greater mental health needs, and treating them could be expensive, Allman said.
“That’s going to cost us not just extra time, but huge amounts of resources to pay for professionals that we hadn’t budgeted for,” Allman said.
The diversion of state prisoners to the county came after three years of a steady decline in jail populations across the country.
About 785,533 people were incarcerated nationwide in county and city jails on June 30, 2008, after years of rising inmate populations, according to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics jail population survey published Wednesday. Jail populations then took a downward turn across the nation, dropping 6.3 percent in three years.
By June 30, 2011, researchers counted 735,601 jail inmates in the country, according to the report.
An overall decrease in crime since 2008 contributed to the decrease, as well as the widespread embrace of sentencing alternatives.
Beds opened up at Sonoma and Mendocino jails, matching the national trend, unlike some of California’s largest urban jails that still faced overcrowding.
The North Coast had plenty of space to house additional inmates. But the cells weren’t necessarily built for people to live in for years, said Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker, who heads Sonoma County’s detention division.
The average inmate diverted to the jail will stay about three years.
They have seen a steady influx of visitors, paperwork and violence since October 2011.
Assaults against staff have jumped 15 percent and incidents of verbal aggression jumped 35 percent, according to jail statistics produced Wednesday.
“Assaults on staff, assaults on inmates, major contraband like weapons and drugs, all those things have increased dramatically,” Freitas said.
Jails were once largely immune to prison politics based on race and gangs. But staff now are seeing those conflicts flaring up in local jails.
And they are understaffed. In Sonoma County, local budget cuts coupled with retirements and medical leaves have left the Sheriff’s Office short-handed.
In May, correctional officers worked 46 hours of mandatory overtime, which doesn’t include overtime for unpredictable incidents that arise.
“That’s a long time to be in an environment that is more tense than it used to be,” Awad said.
Many of the jail’s activity programs have been run by volunteers. But that is no longer enough for people incarcerated for years, who must keep occupied during their time in jail and gain skills so they can stay out of trouble once they’re released.
The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office just spent $35,000 on a new modular building to make room for additional educational programs, Allman said.
In Sonoma, they’ve begun adding conflict resolution, anger management, parenting and other life skills to programs such as Starting Point, which helps long-term inmates start dealing with underlying problems that got them arrested in the first place.
But they need more, Walker said.
“An inmate, she can plant flowers, but her decision making isn’t going to get better,” Walker said, referring to a gardening program.
The Sheriff’s Office is preparing to ask for a new position for the next budget cycle, a sergeant to both handle new programs and classify inmates to help track factors like gang affiliations.
But it’s also the little unexpected details that are adding up. Jail staff researched a type of dental floss that wasn’t strong enough to use against another inmate that they now sell in the commissary.
“Any doctor will tell you you can’t go a year, two years, without flossing,” Awad said.
Sheriffs Freitas and Allman were in Sacramento on Tuesday and Wednesday for the California State Sheriffs’ Association annual conference with the governor.
How jails are grappling with long-term inmates was the primary discussion.
“Everyone agrees that’s a significant problem, that’s our number one legislative platform.” Freitas said.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.