Because the cost to renovate Santa Barbara County’s Main Jail is expected to far exceed initial estimates and available funds, officials plan to only upgrade two of its facilities, then add a single pod to the Northern Branch Jail to replace some of the inmate beds that will be lost.
Supervisors reached that decision Tuesday on a 3-2 vote, approving a County Executive Office recommendation but rejecting the sheriff’s request to add two pods and voting down two supervisors’ proposed compromise to add one and a half.
Fourth District Supervisor Bob Nelson and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said only adding one pod is a mistake, and Sheriff Bill Brown said it will not provide the necessary beds needed for separating inmates and will compromise the safety of the custody staff.
But the board majority agreed with the staff recommendation, based on recent data and consultant reports, funding and budget issues, and the effort to keep those with substance addiction and the mentally ill out of the jail and, instead, assigned to treatment programs and other assistance.
In addition, the staff said enough savings would be realized from more efficient inmate housing in the single pod to offset the $5.4 million annual debt service on the certificates of participation that will be issued to finance the new pod, estimated to cost nearly $76.6 million.
But staff said savings couldn’t be found to offset the additional $2.4 million in annual debt service for a pod and a half, at a cost of almost $114.9 million, nor the additional $4 million to $5.8 million in additional debt service for two pods, estimated to cost more than $142.6 million.
Staff also indicated that if crime conditions and trends have changed and it appears more beds will be needed by the time the project is ready to go out to bid, another half a pod could be added to the single-pod design — for an additional cost.
Lavagnino and Nelson thought it would be better to design for two pods and, if necessary, reduce the construction project to one and a half or just one pod.
One pod will house 256 inmates, which with the loss of 623 beds at the Main Jail, would bring the county’s jail system capacity to 728. One and a half pods would bring the total capacity to 856, and two pods would bring the total to 984 beds.
Coming up short?
Sheriff Bill Brown said adding just one pod would not provide the number of beds to maintain occupancy at 85%, as recommended by the National Institute of Corrections.
“To embark on a plan to build a jail system that has an insufficient number of rated beds for our jail population is just not a responsible thing to do,” Brown told supervisors, noting it will reduce the current capacity by 35%.
“The recommended option [to add one pod] gambles with the safety of the people of Santa Barbara County, the safety of the inmates who are housed in our jail and the safety of the dedicated custody staff who work in our jails,” he said.
Brown said that on Monday, the jail population was 751, and for the past few months it has consistently fluctuated between 750 and 780 inmates daily, and prior to the pandemic it ranged from 850 to 900 per day.
He said the county should have no fewer than 1,000 rated beds available.
“The only option that comes close to that recommendation is the two-pod option,” Brown said.
He pointed out only 10% of the people currently housed in the County Jail system are there for misdemeanors, and those are “serious, high-grade misdemeanors.”
Consultant reports and county staff said the number of residents in the age range at risk for arrest is not expected to increase over the next 10 years, and the current trend is for fewer bookings as more addicts and mentally ill are diverted.
But Brown said when the current 10% to 25% vacant law enforcement positions are filled in the coming years, the number of arrests will increase.
“The one-pod option will require many stars to come into alignment in a short period of time, and there is no margin for error or growth whatsoever,” he said.
Nelson had previously questioned some of the assumptions made in the reports, including those regarding the county population, noting that the latest Housing Element calls for adding thousands of homes.
“We have to hit every single assumption for the number of beds to be adequate,” he noted, and with a five-year construction period, he was concerned by the time the single pod opened, potentially in November 2028, it would already be too small.
He said the county should be fiscally responsible by designing for 20 years out, when the population will be much higher.
A neglected jail
Santa Barbara County’s Main Jail is, by the sheriff’s own description, “more than 60 years old” and an “archaic design” that is inefficient to operate and doesn’t lend itself to current methods and programs of rehabilitation and recidivism prevention.
In addition, the facility has gradually deteriorated as costly maintenance was deferred, just as it was for so long with other county buildings.
Currently, the estimated cost for taking care of deferred maintenance issues for just the Inmate Reception Center portion of the Main Jail is $5.6 million.
Not that county officials had totally ignored the problems posed by the aging facility; in fact, for years the Board of Supervisors struggled with how to renovate the jail and, more importantly, pay for it.
The county’s hand was forced after it was sued in 2017 by several individuals being held in the jail awaiting trial, alleging the county was forcing inmates to live in dangerous, unsanitary conditions by operating an old, dilapidated, overcrowded and understaffed jail.
The suit also sought to have the county provide people with disabilities equal access to programs, services and activities as well as access to assistive devices, least restrictive housing and a grievance system to contest discrimination.
In 2018, the suit was granted class action status, and in March 2020, the plaintiffs’ attorney sought pandemic responses that included a reduction in jail population, increased educational opportunities, access to cleaning supplies and methods of free communication.
A stipulated judgment and remedial plan was approved in July 2020 that required improvements in medical and mental health care, suicide prevention, accommodation of disabilities, environmental health and safety, staffing and training.
That led to the project to renovate the Main Jail, but given the cost the county was facing to rehab the entire facility, the staff recommended improving only two sections of the jail and adding more inmate housing at the state-of-the-art Northern Branch Jail.
The plan calls for renovating the Inmate Reception Center and its four temporary housing pods to improve medical and mental health screening and privacy, accessibility to cells, showers, public restrooms, visiting areas and inmate toilets and an accessible pathway to public parking.
Total cost for that, which will provide 128 beds, is almost $10.5 million, and with deferred maintenance, the total is almost $16.1 million.
The second area to be improved is the exercise yard, where three separate yards will be created with three access points from existing doors, which is expected to increase the amount of time inmates can spend outdoors.
Total cost of the exercise yard improvements is almost $1.5 million, bringing the total for Main Jail renovation to a little more than $17.5 million.
To explain his position on the pods, Lavagnino dove back into 2015, when the board discussed reducing overcrowding at the jail and the daily inmate population hovered between 800 and 1,000.
At that time, he said, the sheriff put forth a plan to not only build the Northern Branch Jail but also to add 228 inmate beds, and the state would pay 90% of the construction costs.
“Construction at that time was $39 million,” Lavagnino said. “So, for us, a less than one-time cost of $4 million, plus $2 million operating [cost], we could have had an additional 228 beds. Our board voted it down on a 4-1 vote.
“The reason why was at that time we said we couldn’t afford it,” he continued. “… So to build those same beds today, we’re not talking about spending $153 million. In my mind, that’s a $149 million mistake,” Lavagnino said. “I’m not going back over this so I can say I told you so. But I want to highlight because I think we’re in the same exact spot we were, and I don’t want to make the same mistake again.
“The last time we made this mistake is because we were asking the wrong question,” he said. “We asked in 2015, ‘what can we afford,’ not ‘what do we need?’ … This is something we need.”
Lavagnino said everyone is in favor of diversion, and he hopes it works. But he noted the population is going to continue to grow, so by default, there will be more crimes committed.
He said he would like to support adding two pods, but being realistic about costs, he said he had to go with one and a half, and he made a motion to that effect, seconded by Nelson.
That failed on a 2-3 vote,
Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann then moved to direct staff to work toward designing a single pod and return in a year with a report on diversion success, and although there was apparently no second, the motion passed 3-2.