Hard cases changing tenor of jail population


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By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

A year into a cost-reducing measure to selectively relocate some state prison inmates to county jails, the population at the San Mateo County jail is seeing changes to its collective attitude and to its demographics.

Attitude problems among inmates have grown, Sheriff Greg Munks told the Almanac in an interview. "We're having a much harder clientele, we're having a much more difficult clientele," he said. Inmates with disciplinary problems and troublesome gang affiliations have led jail officials to shut down a treatment program and convert that space to special housing, he said.

The prison arrivals are inmates convicted of "non-violent, non-serious and non-sex-related" crimes. Most are women and some are not happy about their new living situations. "They would prefer to be in prison," Mr. Munks said. County jails, designed for short term stays, don't have a prison's visitor facilities and space for personal property. "County jails are tougher time, if you will," he said.

There's been violence recently in E dorm, designed for 18 women and home to around 50 in triple-tier bunks. A state inmate punched a county inmate several times because as the county inmate was passing by, her hair touched the state inmate's towel, according to a jail statement. Minutes later, another state inmate punched a county inmate for refusing to hand over money, the statement said.

The inmates involved have been relocated, jail spokeswoman Detective Rebecca Rosenblatt said. At the end of September, 14 women were under maximum security detention, most having come from prison. "Prison yard politics" have become an issue, Ms. Rosenblatt said. There is "a higher level of criminal sophistication," she said, when asked to elaborate.

"California incarcerates nearly 20,000 women in state prisons and local jails, and typically these offenders have committed less serious crimes than their male counterparts and have lower recidivism rates," according to a September 2011 policy brief from The Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley. Women offenders a "very vulnerable population" respond well to "gender-responsive correctional programming, although sadly they are often overlooked because of their smaller numbers," the report said.

Friendlier housing for men and women will be part of the new $160 million jail scheduled to open in 2015 at the corner of Maple and Blomquist streets in Redwood City. Open dorm-like spaces with wooden doors and a few people per room will make up "a good portion" of the women's facilities and all of the men's, Mr. Munks said. No bars and no sliding steel doors, at least not in this section of the jail, he said. The current jail will continue as the maximum security section for men.

The county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the new jail in May 2012, but the proposal is controversial. At a recent supervisors meeting, protestors argued for spending the money in other ways, including incarceration alternatives.

There will be alternatives to ease inmates back into the community, Mr. Munks said. Inmates who earn the privilege, and wear a GPS bracelet, will be allowed to attend community college and job training during the day and return at night to the structured environment of jail.

"If you normalize, or soften, the setting, you bring the tension level down," the sheriff said. Such housing will be for inmates who show the potential to turn their lives around; helping them along will be new spaces for treatment programs, mental health and family relations.

"We recognize that the whole idea (of incarceration in jail) is to help people re-enter the socio-economic fabric of the community," Mr. Munks said. "These are our neighbors. They are our community members. They're coming back one way or another. What can we do to increase their chances of success?" Under the relocation program, prisoners are repatriated to county jails according to the counties in which they lived at the time of their conviction.

"Jail plays an important role for some people," Mr. Munks added. "Sometimes they're not motivated to make changes until three, four, five times in jail, when they really hit bottom." The difficult cases will remain in high-security cells and serve their time, he said. "We shouldn't beat our heads against the wall and waste time on them."

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Like this comment
Posted by downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Why do inmates have money to fight over? Shouldn't cash be kept held with their other personal property?

Like this comment
Posted by Susan Smith
a resident of Woodside: other
on Oct 14, 2012 at 7:25 am

Well, if one can't do the time, don't do the crime. We pay professional jail personnel a MASSIVE amount of money, with life long benefits, to manage this vey problem. We also, as taxpayers seem to pay and pay and pay....I am getting tired of paying for larger county facilities for more jobs that inclue massive, unfunde benefits. Plain tired.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Cushman
a resident of another community
on Oct 15, 2012 at 10:02 am

This article disturbed me. There is another way to look at what happened in E dorm. A long time ago I was employed as an inmate supervisor at a state correctional institution. One thing I learned quickly is that inmate behavior is directly related to the "climate" of the institution. Establishing and maintaing that climate is a responsibility of Jail Administration. The article reads as if the changing tenor of the jail population is inevitable and beyond control of the Jail staff and administrators. More sophisticated inmates may pose a managerial challenge ; however, allowing them to change the culture of the institution represents an abdication of responsibility. It gives inmates too much control.

In the case of E dorm, we have created a pressure cooker by packing 50 troubled and troublesome women in triple-tier bunks and isolating them in a small space designed for 15 women - a unit buried within a secure jail for men. No wonder they misbehave.

A former Director of the US Bureau of Prisons once said: " Give me the right staff and program and I could run a good prison in an Old Red Barn". He wrote a book by the same title. A new jail may improve the situation. But well-trained staff, experienced at managing women inmates, accompanied by good programming in a separate, community-based facility for women will do much more.

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