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Surge of prison inmates reshaping, straining county jails

  • The mental health block at the Sonoma County's Main Adult Detention Facility in Santa Rosa on Friday. The shift of the prison population into county jails has placed a greater burden on facilities the previously held criminals and suspects for shorter periods of time. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat)

The sheriffs of Sonoma and Mendocino counties joined law enforcement from across the state in Sacramento this week to bend Gov. Jerry Brown's ear about the impact of the diversion of state prisoners to county supervision.

From dental floss added to the commissary, metal doors replacing wooden ones and an increase in violence, the impacts have been wide-ranging, North Coast jail officials said.

The average stay at the Sonoma County Jail has increased from 22 days to 287 since the so-called realignment of prisoners to county custody began in October 2011.

“We are hiring staff, but that isn't keeping up with influx of inmates,” Sheriff Steve Freitas said. “We have extreme overtime rates and worker-related injuries and burnout related to that.”

Jails were once places where inmates stayed for a year or less.

That changed in 2011, when the state began transferring inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to county jails to alleviate crowding in California's $9 billion-a-year prison system. The decision followed a string of legal defeats in federal court over conditions at the prisons, which were holding more than double the number of inmates for which they were designed.

Now, the longest terms currently being served are 15 years for a woman at the Sonoma County jail and 14 years for a man in Mendocino County.

The longest sentence for a California jail inmate is a 43-year term for a man in Los Angeles.

“That was beyond what anyone had thought about,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said. “No one would have thought it would have come to this.”

The average daily population at the Mendocino County Jail jumped from about 195 inmates prior to October 2011 to about 275 inmates today, Allman said.

Realignment boosted Sonoma County's female inmate population the most, by about 33 percent, Detention Division Lt. Mazen Awad said. About 16 percent of women incarcerated would have gone to prison prior to the change. Women now take up two wings at the main jail, rather than just one.

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