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From ‘little county jail’ to ‘mini prison:’ Placer’s new reality

Placer County Jail staff opens up about AB109 issues
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Editor’s note: Journal Staff Reporter Jon Schultz is taking part in the Auburn Police Department’s Citizens’ Awareness Academy and will be writing about his weekly experiences in Sunday’s Journal. 

Placer County Jail used to be a “little county jail” where you treat everyone like your neighbor, because there’s a chance that they are actually your neighbor, Sgt. Rebecca Lyke said.

Since the prisoner realignment, that little jail has turned into a “mini prison,” Lyke said.

County jails were told they would barely notice the difference of realignment, she said. About a year-and-a-half later, nearly a quarter of Placer County Jail inmates are products of Assembly Bill 109.

Passed in 2011 to address the court-ordered 33 percent reduction in California state prison population – to 137.5 percent capacity by June 27 – AB 109, commonly referred to as “realignment,” funnels nonviolent, non-serious and non-sex offending felons to county jails instead of prisons.

It also requires most parole revocations to be served in county jails rather than prisons.

When I toured the Placer County Jail with about 20 others in the Auburn Police Department’s Citizens’ Awareness Academy, the strain on the facility and its staff is apparent.

Lyke and Title 15 Compliance Officer Brandon Fichou gave an eye-opening presentation on some of the real effects of realignment, and then we split into two groups and they showed us first-hand what they are faced with on a daily basis.

The first thing I noticed is the smell.

I personally began the tour as a drunken offender would have, going through booking and entering the sobering tank for a brief moment. The odor is what you would expect. The booking area itself carried a hearty, earthy aroma.

Then, I either got used to it, or the sense of sight took over. The housing areas are large and circular, with two tiers of cells, prisoners staring from their window slots at our tour group from every direction.

We had been standing in a raised room encased by glass in the middle of the housing areas where officers monitor the inmates and can unlock their doors with the press of a button.

“Don’t touch the buttons,” Fichou, my group’s guide, told us at one point.

As surreal as the sights had been for someone who hasn’t experienced it before, the greatest takeaway from the tour is the undercurrent of realignment issues through all of it.

Growing up, Fichou said he had wanted to patrol the streets as a police officer, but with his family in mind, he finds the life of a correctional officer to be a safer route in a controlled environment. Yet county jails are facing an increasingly challenging situation.

 “There are more fights since AB 109 than we’ve ever had, and it’s getting more and more dangerous,” he said, adding that the jail averages a fight per day as opposed to one per week or every other week, as it was before realignment.

Fichou said earlier in the week there had been a “mini riot” in an area of Placer County Jail holding 52 inmates, when 30 of them fought over prison politics that are a byproduct of AB 109.

That infusion of prison culture is causing the jail to deal with more gang-related issues, Fichou said. For example, officers identify the so-called “alpha male” leaders of gangs that are based on race or locale and place them in administrative segregation away from the rest of the population, he said.

Designed to hold 100 inmates when constructed in 1985, he said Placer County Jail now averages more than 600 daily – 40 fewer than what it is rated for between the main facility and a nearby minimum security jail.

On Thursday, Fichou said it had 630 inmates with 122 of them attributed to AB 109. In 2010, the jail averaged about 520 inmates per day.

Fichou’s job is to ensure the jail meets regulations mandated by state law, and AB 109 has complicated those issues for counties as well.

The Title 15 requirements differ between county jails and prisons. For example, inmates in prison are allowed conjugal visits, whereas they aren’t required to get them in county jail, Fichou said.

He said this creates an atmosphere at the county level where an inmate can attack an officer or another inmate in hopes of being transferred to prison, where he or she will get that accommodation.

Prisons also must have sweat lodges for inmates of certain religions, something county jails now have to look into providing because of the longer terms, Fichou said.

The county jail is originally designed to hold inmates for one year, as felony offenders serving a year or longer were sent to prisons before AB 109.

The longest current term for a Placer County Jail inmate is eight years and four months; Los Angeles County has an inmate with a record 43-year term, Fichou said.

The lengthier terms are also adding up to higher medical costs at the county level, he said.

Before AB 109, if a Placer County Jail inmate was having a health issue and they were out in a month, they could possibly wait until their release to have surgery. Now, if a longer term inmate can’t wait to have surgery, then the county picks up that bill, Fichou said.

And they’ve got better health coverage than most everyday citizens, with next-day appointments and the medication they need for around $3, he said.

It costs around $70,000 a quarter to cover Placer County Jail inmates’ medications, “run-of-the-mill” ones like aspirin, and that’s coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets, Lyke said.

Judging from the tour, Placer County Jail correctional officers could use some of those $3 bottles of aspirin to deal with the headache that has been, and will continue to be, AB 109.

 

Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews