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Newest Jail Likely to Be a Full House by Weekend

November 13, 1987|MICHAEL CONNELLY | Times Staff Writer

The newest jail in the Los Angeles County detention system, the 1,600-bed, medium-security facility unveiled Thursday at Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho in Saugus, will probably be at its capacity of prisoners by the end of the week, authorities said.

Sheriff Sherman Block said the largely prefabricated jail, built in 16 months, is more a Band-Aid on the county's jail-crowding problem than a solution. Prisoners have been transferred to the facility steadily since its doors opened four weeks ago.

Asked Thursday how long it will be before the new jail reaches capacity, Block said: "Oh, about 48 hours."

Design, Cost Cited

During an unveiling ceremony Thursday in which dozens of public officials were served fried chicken, potato salad, speeches and jail tours, officials lauded the jail's design and quick and inexpensive construction--for $16 million. The cost is about $50,000 a bed less than the national average, officials said.

But the sheriff said it is not the answer to the county's crunch for jail space: "We are terribly overcrowded. This will give us a little immediate relief."

Detention deputies are scheduled to begin moving more than 400 prisoners from the central jail in downtown Los Angeles to the new facility today, officials said. Already, in the month since the jail was officially put to use, about 1,100 prisoners, many from the central jail, have been moved in.

The reason for the transfers and the quickly dwindling space in the new jail's 16 dormitories is that the county is under orders from a federal judge to reduce the inmate population at the central jail to 6,800 by Jan. 1.

Bed Space Increased

Deputies said Thursday that a population count at the central jail was unavailable. However, at the end of October, 8,026 prisoners were housed there.

The medium-security jail in Saugus was designed as an 832-bed facility, but authorities, faced with the growing crowding problem, opted this year to swap bunk beds for most of the single beds originally in the design.

"That has given us the increased ability to hold about 1,600 people here," said Deputy Clint Bowers, a member of a transition team that prepared the jail for opening. "That will help alleviate the overcrowding in our other jails."

The addition of 1,600 inmates will bring the number of prisoners housed at the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho, which has another medium-security jail as well as minimum- and maximum-security facilities, to about 7,000, officials said. Plans for a 2,000-bed maximum-security jail to open on the 2,850-acre honor rancho in 1989 are also under way.

The jail unveiled Thursday is separated into four modules, each containing four 96-bed dormitories. The design is new in Los Angeles County jails because each dormitory is self-contained, with its own sleeping, dining, bathing, library, medical, visiting and recreation facilities.

Prisoners are allowed outside a dorm only to walk into an adjoining outdoor recreation area--a courtyard surrounded by walls and topped with fencing.

"Unless they have to go to court or have a serious medical problem, they are here from the day they arrive until the day they leave," Block said.

The dorms have surveillance cameras, intercom systems and sound-monitoring equipment to alert deputies to fights or calls for help. The prison population does not need matches, since electric lighters are on walls near guard booths. The ceilings have skylights, though sunlight comes through bars.

Other jails offer inmates more freedom to move inside, officials conceded.

Block said that, so far, the inmates have not liked the new design because of the lack of movement it allows them. But he was not worried about it. "A jail is a jail," he said. "They aren't designed with the convenience of the prisoners in mind."

Block said other county jails will also be used to alleviate crowding in the central jail to meet the inmate limit by the end of the year. "It will be kind of like musical chairs--we'll be moving people through the system," he said.

And, although Block was clearly happy to be opening a jail that will help solve part of that problem, he said new jails are not the final answer to the growing need for space. He said more emphasis needs to be placed on drug education and other programs to steer people away from crime.

"That's the only way to realistically deal with crime and the numbers of inmates we house," Block said. "We could keep on building jails and courthouses until we bankrupt the system . . . . "

He said his office plans about $500 million in new jail construction by 1992. The new jail space will bring systemwide capacity to 22,000 inmates, he said. But the number of inmates in the system on Thursday was 21,854, and Block said the projected number for 1992 is 34,000.

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