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INMATES ON FLOOR, ON EDGE JAIL CROWDING FUELS TENSION.

Byline: Bhavna Mistry Staff Writer

CASTAIC - Two hundred inmates sleep on mattresses on the floor at the Pitchess Detention Center, victims of a growing inmate population in a system where jails are being shuttered to cut costs.

The situation has led to an increase in fighting in the jails at the Saugus complex and prompted the reopening of the aging South Facility at Pitchess, closed last year to cut costs.

``All the facilities are crowded,'' said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Capt. John Vander Horck, acting commander of Pitchess Detention Center. ``The jail population is up.''

The department is operating on a $62 million shortfall following the largest ever budget cuts by the Board of Supervisors.

In response, Sheriff Lee Baca ordered the closure of Century Regional Detention Center in Lynwood and the Biscailuz Recovery Center, saving the department $18 million to $20 million a year. Some low-risk inmates were freed to make room for others, but the controversial practice hasn't help alleviate a soaring jail population.

``We have to maximize all the beds that we have,'' Vander Horck said. ``From a management standpoint, everyone should be in a bed. We have to make the best use of the space we have.''

On Tuesday, there were 627 inmates countywide sleeping on mattresses on jail floors, including 207 at the three Pitchess jails, 157 at Twin Towers Detention Center and 168 at Men's Central Jail.

``We get lines of inmates every day,'' Vander Horck added. ``It's a constant battle.''

The jails are managing as best they can.

``Since January, our inmate population has increased by 2,000 - that's a 10 percent increase,'' said Chief Robert Hoffman, head of Custody Operations Division. ``It's not that there are more people, we're just not getting them released as quickly as we used to.''

A number of reasons were cited for longer stays in jail - higher bails, longer sentences and more diagnostic tests being ordered.

``The arrests have not changed,'' Hoffman said.

Hoping to alleviate some of the overcrowding as well as reduce costs, Baca, on June 13, ordered inmates released if they had served 70 percent of their sentences or if bail was less than $25,000.

As of Friday, 3,119 such inmates had been released.

An additional 123 inmates yet to be tried, whose bail was less than $25,000, were cited out with written promises to appear in court.

``It's not having that much of a positive impact on our numbers as we had hoped,'' Hoffman said. ``All but a few of those people would have been released by now anyway.''

Inmates are feeling the effects.

``It's really, really crowded,'' said Wesley Hall, 37, in custody on suspicion of murder. ``I had to sleep on the floor. It's terrible. There's people walking all over you.''

Jaron Byous, 22, in for a probation violation, spent three nights on the floor.

``I slept on the floor, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I got a bed Monday,'' Byous said. ``You're not supposed to come to jail and sleep on the floor. My back's hurting. I'm a young man, and I have back problems already.''

Byous, in custody for a probation violation, said that instead of the 66-inmate capacity, up to 80 inmates have slept in his dorm.

``The more people in the dorm, the worse it is,'' Byous said. ``Sometimes there will be tension, sometimes there's not.''

The increased edginess is one of the biggest problems with the overcrowding.

``It's a challenge,'' Vander Horck said. ``But we're in police work. We're used to deal with challenges.''

Since the beginning of the year, as crowds grew, there have been more disturbances at Pitchess. Twelve fights have been quelled since May.

A fight a week ago that started over the use of a dorm table left 13 inmates injured, including two who were hospitalized.

As part of plans to alleviate some of the overcrowding, the Pitchess South Facility will reopen.

``The inmate population at the time allowed us to do that,'' Hoffman said.

On Wednesday, 300 inmates were moved into that facility and 300 more will follow on Monday.

``Hopefully this will reduce tensions and correspond to reduce fights,'' Vander Horck said. ``It should relieve the overcrowding countywide.''

The old South Facility has been established as an annex of the North Facility, sharing the supervisory staff to cut costs.

``We don't have to open the entire jail, which would be a major expense,'' Hoffman said. ``South may be the answer to our problems, at least our immediate problems.

``Our goal is to keep people off the floor.''

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Inmates at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic are sleeping on the floor as jail conditions are getting more crowded.

David R. Crane/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jul 14, 2002
Words:787
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