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Grand Jury: Crowded Jail a Public Threat

By Craig Koscho- For the past several years, the Calaveras County grand jury has cited the small capacity at the county jail as a major problem, and this year is no exception.

The 2004-05 Grand Jury Report released Friday noted how the facility´s cap of 65 inmates means more and more prisoners are released before their sentences are completed. More are simply not jailed because there is no room.

Grand jury members described the situation as a “clear and present danger to the citizens of Calaveras County.”

Sheriff Dennis Downum, who has been campaigning for a new jail almost since taking office 11 years ago, does not dispute the panel´s findings.

“I think their comments were accurate,” Downum said.

As of June 26, the jail had booked 1,518 men and women this year, according to information from jail officials. Of that number, 266 have been released before completing their sentences to make room for more serious offenders, totaling more than 24½ years of unserved jail time.

Money is the problem and the continuing lack of funding compounds that problem.

A needs assessment study conducted as a prelude to building a new jail is now about five or six years old, and needs to be revised in the face of changing costs during that time, Downum said.

One possible funding source would be to go to the local voters for a county bond measure.

“We´ve kept that as a last resort because, from time to time, there is state and federal funding available,” Downum said.

That kind of grant money nearly dried up the last few years because of the state´s budget problems.

Downum hopes California voters will approve a state-wide ballot measure next year that would generate jail-construction funds.

The grand jury report recommends some possible alternatives to the jail, such as confining law-breakers to their homes and monitoring them with electronic leg bracelets, or creating a tent city for inmates similar to one set up by an Arizona sheriff.

The department does have an electronic monitoring program, Downum said, but it is limited because it does require staff to keep track of the detainees´ movements.

As for the tent city, Downum said the Arizona corrections board gives sheriffs leeway to come up with such creative measures.

The California board is more restrictive.

The only reason a local sheriff in this state may house inmates in tents is if there is some type of environmental emergency, and then it limits the tent occupancy to one week, Downum said.

The grand jury also noted the wide open space behind the jail, saying it represented a security risk.

Downum again acknowledged the problem, saying it would be addressed with a new facility.

The panel´s recommendation that the area be fenced off is not workable at this time, Downum said.

“It basically takes our parking away and our ability to get to the rear of the jail to drop prisoners off,” he said.

The jury had nothing but praise for the jail´s kitchen, noting it was clean, well run, and continues to pass all health inspections with high marks.

“In fact, its scores are generally higher than many restaurants in the county,” states the report.

The food service has been run for 17 years by Ella Lombardi.

“She does a tremendous job for us,” Downum said.

Both of them noted the constraints recent budget cuts have put on food service, but the jail continues to serve appetizing meals.

“I´m not going to serve anyone anything but good quality food,” Lombardi said.

Breakfast last Friday consisted of two eggs, oatmeal, a slice of bread, fruit cocktail and milk. Some mornings the inmates also get biscuits and gravy.

Lunch was homemade vegetable soup, a turkey bologna sandwich and a beverage.

For dinner, inmates were served two enchiladas with sauce and cheese, green salad, Mexican rice, corn, Jell-O and milk.

When asked if she has ever considered moving on to a restaurant or some other type of facility, Lombardi said she has a good job, and enjoys preparing meals for the inmates.

Downum and the grand jury observed how important it is to serve inmates quality meals.

“We do believe Ella´s philosophy is right,” Downum said. “If you feed people decently, you keep a lot of problems down.”

Contact Craig Koscho at ckoscho@calaverasenterprise.com.

Reprinted with kind permission from the Calaveras Enterprise