Jail Tour

May 27, 2016

Recently Siskiyou County Jail staff reached out to the Siskiyou Forward Movement to offer a tour, and we took them up on it. We also attended a presentation on Measures S, T and U last Thursday night in Mt. Shasta.

We oppose Measure S on the June ballot, the sales tax increase to fund jail expansion. Still, we found that Jeff Huston, Allison Giannini and Ray Wolf are clearly professionals doing difficult jobs, and sincerely dedicated to serving and keeping the public safe.

We didn’t always agree, as a matter of context and perspective. Yet we found lots of common ground and common goals.

Excellence at the Day Reporting Center

We began our day at this program facility adjoining the freeway. Here, sentenced offenders care for gardens and animals, while also processing firewood and taking on other community projects. This was very impressive, in a positive way. It’s a cost effective, beneficial operation that helps integrate people back into the community, with a track record of success. We wholeheartedly endorse this program.

Yes, We Need A New Jail – But Not The Planned One

Next stop was the main facility. After seeing firsthand the conditions on the inside, they had us quickly convinced of the need for a new jail – yet still, not the one that’s being planned.

The existing jail is dark, dismal and very poorly designed. It’s highly unlikely an inmate will come out better and safer for us after spending time there (again despite the staff’s best efforts). It’s a warehousing operation – 80 or 90% are people awaiting trial or sentencing.

Locked in their cells most of the day, inmates gave an impression of excruciating boredom – the conditions would harm anyone’s mental health. Psychoactive drugs are both smuggled in on occasion, and given out daily. The lack of services leaves inmates with little to do, which creates conflicts, and unsafe conditions for staff. It’s bad.

Our question is whether planned expansion is affordable, and the right way to address conditions causing crime and threatening public safety here in Siskiyou County.  Looking just at the existing jail, it is obsolete and does need replacement. Still, as citizens and leaders we must consider the bigger picture.

It’s Still a Lot of Money

Quick math: if the new jail costs $37 million, at 44,000 square feet that works out to $841/square foot. Another way to look at it is: the initial 180 beds cost an estimated $205,000 each. This seems high – RSMeans estimates US national average jail construction costs for 2013 at less than $300/square foot.

Operating costs are debatable. The planned jail should be more efficient, yet even assuming they can do without any new staffing (as they say), surely food, utilities, transportation and other costs directly related to the number of inmates will increase. There is no additional funding for this.

Values and Priorities – The Way Forward

Siskiyou County’s situation mirrors state and national trends.  Roots of today’s jail population dilemma go back to 1967 when well meaning efforts to close state mental institutions and develop community alternatives failed, after promised treatments didn’t materialize. A Stanford Law School study noted, “Mentally ill inmates (now) represent 45% of the total California prison population” (p. 3).

The “war on drugs” further criminalized users and addicts, and tough on crime laws such as “three strikes” lengthened all types of sentences dramatically. These laws affected state prisons, and also county jails. After the 2011 Supreme Court decision found state prison conditions unconstitutional, the state gave realignment funds to counties for jail expansion and services.

From Newsweek:  “In theory, counties were encouraged to experiment with alternatives to incarceration and treatment programs. In practice, they’re filling the local jails.”

And that is where we are today in Siskiyou County. The jail’s population includes significant numbers of mentally ill inmates and those addicted to hard drugs and alcohol. Staff anticipate increases in the numbers of prisoners with longer sentences who in the recent past would have gone to state prison.

Taking state money to replace and minimally expand the obsolete jail makes sense, but only one of an appropriate size, designed cost-effectively and coupled with strategies to deal with underlying issues both inside and outside the jail. These include mental health treatment, drug and alcohol rehab, and reversing the state’s counterproductive over-incarceration of lesser offenders, here released quickly or eventually without effective intervention.

Currently there is no in-patient drug rehabilitation in the county, despite a significant meth/heroin problem. Mental health services are similarly lacking.

Most importantly, Siskiyou County has to develop a realistic, sustainable economic plan for the future. Without education, jobs and opportunity, we’ll be stuck in an endless race to the bottom, misallocating limited resources. The plan to massively increase the number of inmates warehoused gains us little while hurting local budgets and competitiveness.

Taken in the larger context, our small county has been affected by the last few decades’ economic changes and shrinking of social safety nets and services. Huge increases in prison spending have failed to address root causes of crime and thus reduce threats to public safety. We can keep doing the same things here that have already failed miserably at the state level but should not expect a different result.

After the Election, What Next?

Whatever the outcome June 7, respectful dialog should continue. There are complex problems without easy answers. We appreciated the chance to visit and learn more.  If Measure S passes there will be difficult discussions about the county budget and service cuts. If it fails, the problems of our obsolete jail and limited resources will still require effective solutions.

Either way, as a community we must understand and confront the underlying challenges and root causes of crime here, and demand meaningful action from local and state leaders. Clearly, no matter what, there’s work to be done.