Stanislaus court's inmate elevator back in business

rahumada@modbee.comAugust 4, 2013 

    Rosalio Ahumada
    Title: Courts reporter
    Coverage areas: Criminal cases, breaking news
    Bio: Rosalio Ahumada has been a reporter at The Bee for more than seven years, previously covering crime and public safety issues. He also has worked at the Merced Sun-Star, covering education.
    Recent stories written by Rosalio
    On Twitter: @ModBeeCourts

— There seemed to be a little less waiting around last week in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

An elevator used to move jail inmates has been repaired, ending several months of delays as sheriff's deputies used stairs and the courthouse hallways to get inmates to their hearings.

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 it, the entire process slowed.

Attorneys and judges had to wait for defendants in custody as the inmates were brought up the stairs in groups. The bailiffs had to wait around for enough personnel to move the inmates safely up and down the stairs.

Some criminal cases scheduled at 8:30 a.m. were delayed into the afternoon because of the backup. Ruben Villalobos, a private defense attorney, said he experienced those delays, as did almost everyone else.

"It is nice that we now don't have to wait all day," Villalobos said.

The inmate elevator was installed in 1959 and had broken down before, but it was never out of commission this long. From October to late July, court officials used their contingency plan for moving the inmates.

Brandi Christensen, the court's facilities support services supervisor, said the ThyssenKrupp company made the repairs on the elevator with a budget of $230,466. She said it appeared the elevator overhaul was done under budget, but state officials were crunching the numbers on the final cost.

The repair work didn't start until May 1, in part because the parts had to be manufactured.

Christensen said some of the repairs were done after business hours and on weekends because of security risks. The rest of the work was done during weekdays when the courthouse wasn't quite as busy.

Repairmen from Sacramento worked at the downtown Modesto building, coordinating with sheriff's deputies. The elevator is at the end of an underground tunnel that connects the courthouse with the jail.

The repairmen worked on the parts inside a mechanics room in the courthouse basement floor. They communicated by radio with deputies to know when the area was clear to work on the elevator.

While the elevator looks the same as it did in 1959, Christensen said the elevator's motors, controllers and components have been replaced. The work was finished July 22, and state inspectors have deemed the elevator safe to use and up to modern standards.

Once the repairs started, Christensen said many who work in the courthouse breathed a sigh of relief. With the elevator up and running as normal last week, everyone just seemed a little less tense.

"It's not backed up in the lobby anymore," Christensen said about the crowds of people who were sometimes asked to wait in the lobby as deputies cleared the first-floor hallway to move the inmates into the courtrooms.

The same was done in the basement and on the second floor. During that process, there was no access to the courtrooms. If you were in a courtroom, you had to wait until the inmates were moved before you could get out.

Even before the repairs were completed, deputies made some adjustments that prevented the huge backups in the hallways. They started moving more inmates up the stairs in the morning before the front doors were open to the public.

Villalobos said he appreciated the work done by the deputies to accommodate attorneys as they made their way from courtroom to courtroom.

'Stressed out' over risk

But, he said, "It was weird to be locked in the courtroom. I was stressed out each time I saw the inmates moved down the hallway with the potential risks."

The inmates were moved through a stairwell never before used, the best way to move them through an area not open to the public.

Christensen said they kept the stairwell available last week, just in case there were any glitches with the repaired elevator. But there were no problems.

Michael Scheid, a private defense attorney, said everyone adjusted to the changes that came after the broken elevator. And he's sure everyone is ready to adjust again as the process returns to normal.

"It seems like it's going to run a lot smoother now," Scheid said. "It's a welcome change."

It wasn't all good news for the courthouse elevators last week, though. As the inmate elevator returned to service, the public elevator in the first-floor lobby broke down.

The "Out of Order" signs were posted because the elevator worked only intermittently. While a public stairwell is available, those in wheelchairs or with physical conditions that prevent them from climbing stairs will have to do some waiting.

A contingency plan is in place to have some courthouse visitors use another elevator in a secure area on the other side of the building. But it's accessible only through locked doors, and visitors will have to be escorted by a deputy.

Christensen said a part needed for the repair has been ordered, but it is unclear when the repair work can start and when the public elevator will be running again.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.

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