Grand Jury: jail overcrowding, staff shortages should be addressed

The Santa Cruz County Rountree Facility in Watsonville. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian

Rountree praised for educational and training programs

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — The Santa Cruz County Grand Jury on Wednesday issued a report critical of the county’s jail facilities, pointing out problems with overcrowding, staff shortages and illegal drugs making their way inside.

The 19-member Grand Jury’s first report of the year also praised the Rountree Detention Facility for the educational and training programs offered to inmates, and the Ben Lomond Conservation Camp #45 for providing life skills for the inmates who qualify for placement there.

The report covered the county’s six detention facilities, including Main Jail, Blaine Street Women’s Facility and Rountree Detention Facility, all of which are run by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.

It also covers Juvenile Hall, run by the county probation department, and Ben Lomond Conservation Camp #45, also known as “Fire Camp,” which is run by the State of California.

According to the report, the inmate population at Main jail was 370 when it visited for the first time, and 369 on the second visit, which is 16 percent above its rated capacity.

The report called overcrowding a “continuing problem” at the main facility.

Jail staff told the jurors that illegal drugs frequently come in to the jail, both through visitors and hidden in inmates’ body cavities.

That’s also true at the women’s jail, where the lack of security at its perimeter fencing makes it relatively easy to toss contraband over the fence, the report said.

The largest problem noted by the report was low staffing, compounded by high housing costs in Santa Cruz County. Many employees said they commute from San Benito County, while some come from as far away as the Central Valley.

Mandatory overtime also adds stress to the job, staff told the Grand Jury.

The Rountree facility in Watsonville garnered praise for its classes and training programs.

“The Grand Jury was impressed by the array of classes and training programs offered, and hopes that personnel are able to obtain commitments from local businesses to hire inmates after release,” the report reads.

In a list of five recommendations, the Grand Jury said that the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office should research and evaluate body-scanning equipment to detect incoming illegal drugs.

The SCCSO should also work to alleviate overcrowding, including bond measures to replace or renovate the facility, the report said.

The department should also address the affects of mandatory overtime and consider options for subsidized housing.

Sheriff’s Office responds

SCCSO Undersheriff Craig Wilson said that the department was aware of all the issues raised by the Grand Jury report, and has been working on them for more than a year.

This includes Sheriff Jim Hart convening the Criminal Justice Committee on Jail Crowding, which will include representatives from the jail, the District Attorney’s Office, the County Administrative Office and the Santa Cruz County Superior Court.

That group will start in August, Wilson said.

“We are interested in addressing overcrowding, as long as it doesn’t jeopardize public safety,” he said.

Wilson also said that the SCCSO was planning to ask the Board of Supervisors for funding that would pay for a body-scanning device for the jail – and a K9 officer that would help stop the flow of illegal drugs into the jails – during the budget hearings on Thursday.

Deputies on Tuesday arrested Justin Fenn after he allegedly tried to sneak in nearly two ounces of meth and heroin hidden in his body cavity, and also tried to sneak in drugs, tobacco, Suboxone, and needles, the SCCSO said on Facebook.

Wilson acknowledged that it has been difficult to retain staff, despite offering a salary that ranges from $62,000 to $82,000 per year.

The SCCSO has temporarily assigned deputies to help out in the jails, Wilson said.

“It’s an ongoing challenge in this county, but it’s reached a new level,” he said. “We have to continue to operate the jail, and we have to do it safely.”

Under state law, organizations typically have 90 days to respond to grand jury reports. They are not, however, required to implement any of the suggested changes.

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To see the report, visit bit.ly/2XZ4VEn

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