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Violence on the rise in California’s county jails

State’s prison realignment plan leaves local lockups more dangerous

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Posted: Wednesday, July 3, 2013 12:00 am

When the state Legislature passed a realignment plan in 2011, they hoped to reduce overcrowding in California’s prisons. But since its adoption, there has been an alarming unintended consequence: Violence in county jails throughout the state has soared.

Assaults by inmates on other inmates are up, and assaults by inmates on corrections officers have risen as well, according to a News-Sentinel investigation.

Because of realignment, the world of county jails has changed.

And jail officers say it has brought more violence, more gang connections and more contraband into their lockups.

“The long-term housing of offenders that are accustomed to serving time in state prison brings a level of sophistication and politics that does not normally present itself at the local county jail level,” said Kim Moule, captain of custody for the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.

It also comes at a time when budget cuts have forced jails to lay off staff. So while officials try desperately to adapt to new circumstances and expectations, inside jailhouse walls a war rages on.

In the Sacramento County Jail, assaults on staff increased more than 160 percent from 2011 to 2012. In the San Joaquin County Jail, inmate-on-inmate assaults increased nearly 40 percent in 2012. In the Yuba County Jail, inmate-on-inmate assaults increased more than 80 percent in 2012. In the San Diego County Jail, assaults on staff increased more than 50 percent in 2012 from the previous year.

Jails throughout the state are experiencing a similar rise in violence, and many jails expect assaults to continue rising this year.

The prison culture has rapidly infected county jails, officials say. Jail inmates are more dangerous than ever, more tactical than ever. And today violence in many jails isn’t just reality, it’s routine.

“With (realignment’s) passing, it put the burden on county jails to hold a much more sophisticated inmate,” said Deputy Dan Rouse of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. “Some of these guys who have been to prison and would go back to prison are being housed here instead. It puts a lot more seasoned veterans from their world into our world.”

Culture change

California adopted realignment in order to alleviate overcrowded state prisons. As a result, many non-violent offenders began serving their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons. This means county jails, which had always been temporary housing facilities, now need to hold inmates for months and years instead of just days.

It’s a change that’s drastically influenced the culture inside jailhouse walls.

Sgt. Anthony Goulart said inmates today are more likely to attack each other or even staff than when he became a correctional officer more than 10 years ago.

“We don’t see the same type of inmate that we did in 1999,” he said. “Today’s inmate is more violent.”

The San Joaquin County Jail, like other county jails affected by realignment, is housing hundreds of inmates who would be otherwise serving time in state prisons. The average stay has roughly doubled since 2011, and county jails are occupied by more inmates with prior prison experience.

Officials say that since the change, the amount of contraband has increased, gang influence has widened, and a violent and organized prison culture has quickly ingrained itself in county jails.

In 2011, there were an average of 13 assaults per month involving two or more inmates in the San Joaquin County Jail. That average jumped to 17 assaults per month in 2012.

And through May 31 of this year, the jail has averaged 19 assaults per month.

“Today we have a different population than we had before mixed into our jail population,” said Deputy James Hartmann, who works in Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s jail investigations unit.

In the Los Angles County Jail, as the inmate population has increased, so have assaults. In 2012, the jail’s average population jumped 20 percent, while assaults increased by 40 percent.

“People are sent here for a longer period of time,” Hartmann said. “Those inmates have to acclimate to their time in jail housing, because the culture is different in state prisons than in county jails. There are different privileges, a lack of privileges, and a different discipline system.”

Inmates with prior prison experience are now asserting their dominance inside county jails, said Sgt. Kevin Steed of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Offenders picked up off the streets and booked into jail do whatever it takes to integrate into a new world now run by veteran convicts — and finding their niche means following orders.

“You get a lot of guys who have been in prison for a long time and they’re schooling up these young guys,” Steed said. “One of the ways these guys get respect is to take a shot at one of us. These older guys will tell them, ‘Listen, either you get (an officer) or we’re going to get you tonight.’ That puts them in a position where they have to respond to it.”

The new mentality has put jail staff members at greater risk.

This year in the Stanislaus County Jail, for example, assaults on staff are on pace to jump 107 percent compared to last year.

The total number of assaults increased 26 percent from 2011 to 2012, and this year, assaults are expected to rise 45 percent.

Jail alterations

But it’s more than the culture that contributes to attacks.

In some cases, inmates purposely attack fellow inmates or staff because a violent offense will earn them a trip to a state prison, which typically have better accommodations, Rouse said.

Officials from jails in Sacramento — as well as San Joaquin County, which experienced a 26-percent rise in assaults on staff from 2011 to 2012 — said increased amounts of contraband and drug use since realignment has also influenced the violent culture.

In addition, staff shortages have exacerbated the burden on county jails.

The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office has been forced to lay off many correctional officers as a result of budget cuts. But while staff decreased, inmates increased, and today the San Joaquin County Jail is overpopulated.

It’s built to house 1,213 inmates, but since realignment, they often need to find beds for 1,400 to 1,500 inmates each night.

State officials, meanwhile, say money is being provided to help ease the pressures on county jails.

“When you add more inmates, you see increases in all sorts of things,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Press Secretary Jeffrey Callison said. “Assaults might be one of those things, but I have no direct knowledge of that.”

California has tried to alleviate this burden by allocating $1 billion in state funds to counties throughout the state. Dozens of counties have used these funds to begin expanding their jail facilities, Callison said.

In San Joaquin County, officials plan to invest the $17.5 million received this year in additional beds, alternatives to incarceration, jail programs and more.

Looking for solutions

Some jails are devising new measures in hopes of preventing a further rise in violence.

The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office has reviewed and modified its internal discipline, housing and jail classification policies. It’s also considering expanding the criteria for pre-trial release, as well as negotiating to transfer inmates from the San Joaquin County Jail to the Alameda County Jail.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has recently created a new system that provides incentives for inmates to behave.

Inmates are housed together based on an assigned number, which is designated based on their behavior, type of crime and notoriety. Inmates with higher numbers are rewarded with an extra visit per week, additional time out of their cell in the evening and more.

“We’re just trying to learn as we go,” Rouse said.

So far, the system appears to be working.

In the Sacramento County Jail, assaults involving two or more inmates decreased from 2011 to 2012 and are on pace for another decline this year. The jail is also expecting assaults on staff to drop from 119 in 2012 to roughly 60 this year.

But in many other counties, violence continues to escalate.

Assaults on staff are expected to increase by 43 percent in the San Diego County Jail this year. In the the Yuba County Jail, inmate-on-inmate assaults are expected to increase by 24 percent. And in San Joaquin County, inmate-on-inmate assaults are on pace to rise by 9 percent.

“Public safety realignment has had a direct impact on local county jails, and San Joaquin County is not unique,” Moules said.

Inmates and jail staff continue to brave an increasingly violent world.

Between those concrete walls the culture has always presented danger. But today, Rouse patrols the Sacramento jailhouse floors more cautiously than ever.

He doesn’t ever turn his back. He knows not to relax.

A new culture exists, and in many jails, it’s continuing to evolve.

“It’s not that we haven’t been around dangerous and smart inmates in the past,” Rouse said. “It’s just that there’s a lot more of them now than ever before.”

Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at krisa@lodinews.com.

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