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Why new Tuolumne County Jail may not be fully operational when it opens

New jail construction underway in Sonora

Sgt. Eric Roberts talks about the Tuolumne County Jail that is currently under construction in Sonora, Calif. on Wednesday August 7, 2019.
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Sgt. Eric Roberts talks about the Tuolumne County Jail that is currently under construction in Sonora, Calif. on Wednesday August 7, 2019.

Construction of the new Tuolumne County jail has long been underway, a $51 million project funded by grants from the state and county money.

Though construction funds exist, the jail may not be able to fully function initially due to lack of staffing and per-inmate costs, according to county and jail officials.

Ground broke for the new jail at the developing Law and Justice Center off Old Wards Ferry Road in March of 2018 and is set to be completed in January, three months after its planned completion date.

Assembly Bill 900 allocated about $13 million from the state to alleviate jail overcrowding, while Senate Bill 1022 provided $20 million to renovate the old jail. Tuolumne County also provided $18 million for the development and construction of the jail. Moss Construction will oversee construction of the Lionakis designed project.

The cost and the time will be worth it, said Tamara McCaig, a lieutenant with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office.

“Everything will be new,” she said during a tour of the construction site Wednesday. “The old jail is just not sufficient to meet the needs of inmates or staff.”

The current jail, aptly referred to as the “old jail,” was built in 1959 in a downtown Sonora neighborhood, surrounded by homes and businesses. With narrow streets, steep hills and an aging infrastructure, everything was difficult to do at the old jail.

Traffic blockages from incoming food delivery trucks and inmate intake trucks cause a hazard on the surrounding streets. Offices for deputies and jail staff were contained in small storage rooms with little to no elbow room. Graywater and sewage water leaked from the pipes in the locker rooms.

The old jail also only accommodates 147 inmates and is constantly overflowing.

“We call it the ‘catch and release program’,” McCaig said. “If somebody is coming in and they’re staying, someone else has to leave because there just is not extra bedding and no space.”

The new jail will offer space to 230 inmates — and, ideally, the ability to house them for their full sentence, something unobtainable with the previous jail’s limited space.

However, the new jail will not be filled right away, as the county funding to house more than 150 inmates does not exist.

“Budget-wise, we will move up to it. It’s a lot of money especially for medical, mental health and dental care,” McCaig said. “So the county has to watch the budget.”

Karl Rodefer, the chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors, said the jail’s opening could be delayed due to the funding issue.

“We are looking at options for how to transition from operating the old jail to the new jail,” he said. “We’re committed to funding this new jail, but we could delay or could partially open the jail for a few months before all of the funding is available.”

Other community assets — like libraries, parks and after school programs — may face budget cuts due to the new jail. The county budget for the next fiscal year is set to be released next week.

Tuolumne County’s predicament isn’t unique.

The new Stanislaus County REACT center has been unable to fully fund its operations since opening in February 2018.

“We had all the funds needed to build,” said Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirske. “But they don’t come with the funds to operate these facilities.”

As a result, Dirske said, they have requested 13 staff for the REACT center — staff needed to allow the facility to fulfill its job of reducing recidivism rates by increasing rehabilitation and educational programs in the jail — but they have repeatedly been denied by the county’s Board of Supervisors.

“None of it is necessarily a good thing,” Dirkse said. “But it’s reality.”

The Tuolumne facility will feature a new inmate intake layout to garner better efficiency when onboarding inmates, a better off-loading dock for deliveries, a secure parking area for jail staff, video visitation for inmates and several other amenities that are absent in the old jail.

Additionally, an area in the new jail will allow for adequate space for tactical and classroom training by both jail staff and county sheriff staff.

“We do it now, but we have to go places,” McCaig said, adding that the training room might cut down on travel costs for jail staff to find places to train for their duties.

Inmates also will have more room for opportunities to receive a high school or higher degree, obtain job skills, apply for Medi-Cal and have the ability to be working citizens upon release, McCaig said.

“This is all geared to reducing recidivism,” she said. “The increased space will help us to get them ready for a job and life outside the jail.”

Better office space, larger locker rooms and more also will greet the expanded staff. Because of the larger jail and more inmates, additional staffing is required to fill the holes.

“We aren’t building the jail not to use it,” Rodefer said. “We will need to add deputies ... We just may not fully populate the jail initially because we don’t have the funds to operate it. The state every year gives us more things to do with less money to do it.”

The new jail will increase operating costs for the county by about $1.2 million, according to the Union Democrat.

Recently, Tuolumne County has seen a “budget crisis,” McCaig said. Though the new jail is necessary, she noted, the county will need to allocate appropriate funds to keep it afloat. Rodefer heartily agrees.

“If we didn’t build a new jail, we would have to close it, and the courts would — and should — come after us,” Rodefer said. Once the new jail is fully open and all other sheriff operations have moved from the old jail, he said, they will likely demolish the structure.

Mackenzie Shuman is a summer news intern for The Modesto Bee. She originally hails from Colorado Springs, Colorado, but goes to school at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication where she is studying Journalism with a minor in Political Science.
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