Santa Clara County has approved a comprehensive study of its jails in the wake of inadequate facilities and a growth of inmates with longer sentences, mental illnesses, special medical needs, security risks and gang affiliations, a county official said.
The county Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to spend $500,000 from a state trust fund to pay for a needs assessment to gather facts the county may use to apply for state money to finance jail improvements, according to county chief executive officer Gary Graves.
The county is concerned about the lack of maximum security housing, the increase of older detainees with chronic diseases and other problems since a 2011 state realignment policy that shifted low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails, Graves said.
"We want to study this with current information," Graves said. "We have years of experience with the old style."
The county's jails are "developing based on the realities of realignment," Graves said. "We're receiving inmates whose average length of stay is longer."
As of Nov. 30, the county's jail population stood at 4,057 inmates, of which 694 are convicts of less-serious felonies or parole violators diverted from state prisons due to realignment, which is now in its third year, Graves said.
The state's Board of Community Corrections established a bed capacity for the county's Department of Corrections at 3,825 and in September 2011 before realignment, the county's jails had only 3,450 inmates, according a county report given to the supervisors Tuesday.
The county's jail system also has more inmates who are high security risks than only a year ago. Those under maximum security reached 645 as of November -- 43 percent higher than mid-2012 -- and 185 are charged with murder, a 30 percent increase, the county reported.
While county inmates were incarcerated from only about 90 to 120 days before realignment, many of the diverted inmates now are serving sentences of two, three or four years at its jails in lieu of state prison, according to Graves.
The county's 57-year-old Main Jail South, located behind the Main Jail on Hedding Street in San Jose, houses 100 maximum-security inmates but has security mechanisms that are no longer in production, requiring jailers to special order or even use handmade parts to control security doors, county officials said.
About 25 percent of the county's jail inmates as of the middle of this year suffered from a mental illness requiring special management, up from 22 percent in all of 2012, and 25 to 30 percent have mental illnesses serious enough to require daily medication, according to the county report.
An estimated 10 percent of county prisoners are seriously mentally ill and of the 1,050 inmates with mental illnesses, more than 200 cannot be housed in special beds needed to manage them, the county reported.
The number of rival gang members in the county's jail system has expanded, many of them from the California Hispanic gangs Surenos and Nortenos, county officials said.
The Surenos before had claimed their territory as south of
Bakersfield and the Nortenos north of that city, but the Surenos are now all over the United States, according to the report.
While Santa Clara County's jails are considered Norteno-controlled, an unprecedented number of Sureno gang members suspected of murder have been booked into the county's jails and often require long periods for prosecution inside, putting them at risk of assault by Nortenos unless placed in separate areas, the county reported.
The ages of Santa Clara County's inmates have increased since the 1980s, with many over 55 and others who are 65 to 70 with special needs and physical disabilities that its jails were not designed for, the county reported.
Along with the Main Jail South, the county's three other facilities, its Main Jail, built in 1989, and Elmwood Women's Correctional Center and Elmwood Men's Minimum Camp in Milpitas are all impacted by the influx of prisoners due to realignment, according to the county.
The Main Jail has had an increase in sewage leaks and spills in public work areas, the woman's center has an entire unit that needs to be replaced and the men's camp barracks cannot support contemporary practices for supervision of inmates, the county reported.
Some of the inmates who are staying longer have multiple health issues, placing a strain on jail infirmaries to serve the sickest and most vulnerable, the county reported.
Violent acts against jail staff have jumped since realignment, with 17 assaults during the first six months of this year compared to 10 for the period in 2012, according to the county.