Modesto honor farm inmates set fires to get home for Christmas

pguerra@modbee.comNovember 20, 2012 

Inmates at the Stanislaus County Honor Farm intentionally set two recent fires in an attempt to get home for Christmas, Sheriff Adam Christianson said. "But they're not going anywhere," he said.

The fires — one Saturday afternoon and the second late Monday, both in the inmate barracks — caused only minor damage and disruption to the facility, the sheriff said Tuesday, crediting staff and firefighters with quick response.

"This is a direct result of realignment," he said, adding that the fires were started by inmates who would have been in the state prison system if the Legislature hadn't passed a law returning them to local custody. The sheriff said the inmates believed that if they burned down the barracks, there wouldn't be anywhere to house them and officials would have no choice but to let them go.

Christianson didn't identify specific inmates, saying the incidents involved "multiple offenders" and although investigators have gathered information on who's responsible, "inmates have no credibility and any case of arson will be very difficult to prove, much less prosecute."

Because arson without injuries isn't considered violent or sexual, Christianson said, even if prosecutors won convictions, it wouldn't result in hard time for the offenders.

The honor farm in Grayson wasn't built for such inmates, Christianson said. It was intended to hold low-level offenders. "But I'm having to let the best of the worst go," he said.

It's a result the Legislature should have foreseen before approving realignment, he believes. "We have this hug-a-thug mentality going under the big white dome that puts communities at risk," Christianson said.

Inmates aren't allowed to have flammable materials, tobacco or drugs, but they manage to get access to those items, as well as cell phones. Some smuggle them in, "using cavities on their persons," Christianson said. Others have family or friends throw items over the fence. Corrections officials have implemented surveillance and perimeter checks, but they don't catch everything.

A jail facility under construction by the Public Safety Center on Hackett Road will help solve the problem, replacing 192 beds lost in an Honor Farm fire in 2010. It will be more secure than the present Honor Farm.

A second jail expansion will bring 384 maximum-

security beds by mid-2016.

In the meantime, Christianson said, inmates have been shifted to other locations and procedures tweaked to prevent further fires.

"The perpetrators have been relocated to the public safety center and the jail," he said. "We're shaking things up."

Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or (209) 578-2343. Follow her on Twitter, @pattyguerra.

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