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Each of County's Regional Jails Has Its Own Distinct Character

JAILS AND JUSTICE: How overcrowding impedes justice in San Diego County. First in a four-part series.

December 29, 1985

Faced with chronic overcrowding at the Central Jail in downtown San Diego, the county since 1977 has opened regional jails in Vista, Chula Vista and El Cajon, a jail camp in Descanso and a women's jail in Santee. Here are brief descriptions of each.

Chula Vista

The South Bay jail, built in the basement of the county's regional center in downtown Chula Vista, was designed for 192 inmates but often houses more than 500. With bunk beds and mattresses lining the walls of common areas, officials have stuffed as many as 586 inmates into the jail.

In what might seem a paradox, cells, normally thought of as places for punishment, are used here as rewards because of their scarcity.

"A cell to us is just a room, but the inmates call it their 'house,' " Lt. Tom Zoll said. "If they don't keep it clean or they carve up the walls or use it to beat up someone, we'll take them out."

A typical inmate module has 24 cells, 12 on the main floor and 12 on a mezzanine. The cells have no bars, just locking doors with windows through which deputies may peer during a security check. Each room has bunk beds, a small desk and a sink-toilet combination made of stainless steel.

Fifty or more inmates share four shower stalls in a common area. Six tables with benches--all bolted to the floor--are used for dining or card-playing. Meals are brought in on carts three times a day by jail trusties--inmates who earn 50 cents a day for performing maintenance, kitchen and other chores.

Two phones are available near the guard cage, on which inmates may make unlimited collect calls. Each inmate is allowed two half-hour visits each week, during which he can talk by phone with a friend he can see through a glass panel.

Reading material is limited to the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor and paperback books from the jail's library of donated volumes. Each module has two color television sets, bought with the profits from the small store that sells candy, cigarettes and other incidentals to inmates.

When inmates enter an overcrowded module, they check in with the module trusty, called a "tank captain" by the inmates.

He keeps a list of their names, provides them a bed roll, and assigns them a spot to sleep on the floor. As other inmates leave the module, the newer ones advance--first to bunks pushed against the walls in common areas, then to a cell with a roommate.

The South Bay jail has more state prison parole violators than the other jails because the state uses a jail conference room to hold hearings at which a panel decides whether to return an inmate to prison. The jail also has the highest percentage of gang members--about 20%--of any of the regional jails, in part because it has eight modules into which the gangs can be segregated.

El Cajon

The East County Jail, says Capt. J.C. La Suer, is a "luxury hotel for a prisoner."

Indeed, inmates at the El Cajon jail live in high-rise rooms atop the East County Regional Center on Main Street. The view from many of the thin-slit windows is majestic: a panorama of El Cajon, the foothills and the Laguna Mountains. Prisoners play video games for free, watch the Padres' home games on cable television and see movies offered by Home Box Office or culled from the jail's membership in a video-movie club.

One inmate module has the county jail system's only carpeted day room and a television with a 40-inch screen. The jail trusties--inmates who perform the jail's daily chores--live even more comfortably here than elsewhere: they have a Coke machine, stereo, pool table and three video game machines.

"Everything you can give someone you can take away," La Suer says. "These things are just another way of maintaining discipline."

The newest of the county jails, El Cajon opened two years ago and has yet to have an inmate assault on a deputy. A state corrections official familiar with the jail attributes the lack of assaults to the deputies' frequent rounds inside the modules, instituted after two early escape attempts. Although inmates quickly discovered that the jail's plastic windows could be punched out, they were just as quick to assess the risk: there has not been an escape attempt since one inmate was killed when he fell from a seventh-floor window and another was seriously injured in a similar accident.

The East County jail was designed for 125 and sleeps 249 comfortably with double-bunking, but the jail averages more than 320 inmates. The extras sleep on mattresses spread on the floor inside the cells, not in day rooms as they do in other jails.


The oldest of the county's regional jails, Vista is the only one that is able to book prisoners into jail directly from local police agencies. The Vista jail opened in 1979 to hold 157 inmates and was expanded in 1980 to hold 246 inmates; it has held as many as 420.

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