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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."