MODESTO -- An elevator used to move jail inmates inside the Stanislaus County Superior Court is broken, causing delays the public and court staff will have to get used to because repairs can't be completed until spring.
The elevator, which quickly moves defendants from the jail to the courtrooms, plays a huge role in the work done by bailiffs, defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges.
Without the elevator, the entire process slows down. It was installed in 1959 and has been broken down before, but it never has been out of commission this long.
"It's unprecedented," said Mike Tozzi, who is the court's executive officer and has worked there since 1974. "There's a lot of tension; there's more security."
Longer wait for everyone
Many are tense because they have to wait around.
Attorneys and judges have to wait for defendants in custody who now are slowly brought up the stairs.
The public has to wait for court hearings or at the end of a courthouse hallway as inmates are escorted into the courtrooms.
The bailiffs have to wait around for enough personnel to move the inmates safely up and down the stairs.
Deputy Public Defender Greg Spiering said hearings have been delayed, and the elevator repairs are needed. He said the elevator once became stuck with one deputy and four inmates inside.
"That's not safe," Spiering said. "I don't blame them a bit. Those deputies have to be safe."
The Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department declined to comment for this report and referred all questions about the broken elevator to Tozzi's office.
"From us, the safety and security of the courthouse is our highest priority," said Sgt. Anthony Bejaran, a sheriff's spokesman. "We do not comment on staffing levels, operational changes or inmate movement in the courthouse to maintain the safety and security of inmates, court employees and deputies."
Spiering said the changes have affected everything attorneys do, but they all will have to adjust.
Judge Marie Silveira has made changes. She moved her cases to a basement courtroom, so five defendants in a murder trial won't have to take the stairs. That trial is expected to go on for weeks.
The parts needed for the repairs have to be searched for or manufactured, said Brandi Christensen, the court's facilities support services supervisor.
"These are very old parts," said Christensen. "We have repairmen coming in from Chicago."
The state has approved the repairs, but the bidding process lies ahead to determine which company will do the work. That's why the cost remains unknown.
Once the state awards the contract, there's an estimated eight weeks of construction.
Christensen said the repairs have to be done when court is not in session, because of security risks. The elevator is at the end of an underground tunnel that connects the courthouse with the jail.
The majority of the repairs likely will be done on weekends and overnight, Christensen said, with some of the work done during lunch.
Those who are frustrated will have to do a lot more waiting before the elevator is fixed. "Everybody has been talking about it," Christensen said. "It's taxing on everyone."
Chief Deputy District Attorney Alan Cassidy said county prosecutors are hoping the repairs can be made as soon as possible.
"We're concerned about the delays it causes to our cases," he said. "I sincerely hope they're exploring all possibilities, and I'm sure they are."
Court officials say there's no alternate plan in the works to move the inmates into the courtrooms while the elevator is out of service.
The inmates are now moved through a stairwell never before used. It's said to be the best way to move them through an area not used by the public.
Extra deputies have been called in to provide more security, Christensen said. They've frosted the windows around the stairwell to prevent those outside the courthouse from recognizing the inmates or seeing their shadows as they walk up and down the stairs.
"The Sheriff's Department always has a backup plan," Christensen said. "That stairwell had to be the backup plan."
A tricky climb
It's a slow process. The inmates wear flip-flop sandals on their feet and shackles on their wrists and ankles as they climb up and down.
Even though state officials have given the go-ahead to purchase land in Modesto for a new state-of-the-art courthouse, that doesn't mean they can make a quick temporary fix on the elevator. Christensen said the elevator has to be overhauled to ensure everyone's safety.
Defense attorneys said the broken elevator has further limited access to their clients before court hearings.
Ruben Villalobos, a private defense attorney, said defendants in custody normally would have a chance to talk about their cases with their attorneys in a detention area in the courthouse's basement. He said that wasn't really a confidential area.
Now, that detention area has been turned into a command center to move the inmates up the stairs. After the inmates reach the upper floors, Villalobos said, defense attorneys have only a few moments to speak to their clients before they're ushered into their court hearings.
"They're making the best they can out of a bad situation," Villalobos said about the deputies. "It just shows how old this building is and how badly we need a new one."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.