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At Last, County May Have the Key to Solving Jail Crisis : 600 Temporary Beds Are Slated to Ease Overcrowding While Plans Move Ahead for a New, 900-Bed Facility

December 28, 1987|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

Nearly two years after the San Diego County Board of Supervisors declared a jail overcrowding crisis, the first tangible results of the county's attempts to resolve the long-running controversy may be seen in early 1988.

Although numerous financial, legislative and legal problems remain in the path of the county's multifront attack on the jail overcrowding problem, top county administrators are hopeful that, by next spring, 600 new, temporary jail beds will be in place and substantial progress will have been made toward the construction of hundreds of permanent cells.

"It's been a long time coming, but we're finally reaching the point where things could start happening in terms of buildings actually going up," said Rich Robinson, head of the county's Special Projects Office.

Reading the Signs

Several major events scheduled for next January and February could be a harbinger of whether 1988 will, indeed, be marked by construction of the first new jail beds since the overcrowding crisis was declared in February, 1986, or whether the frustrations and delays of the past two years will continue.

In late January, the supervisors will consider cutting up to $32 million from a wide range of county social and health programs to finance the construction and operation of new jails. During budget review sessions over the past three months, the supervisors heard dozens of speakers make often emotional appeals against proposed cuts in areas ranging from the 4-H program to aid for seniors. Setting the stage for next month's debate, Supervisor Brian Bilbray has said that "nothing is safe, nothing is untouchable" among the $104 million in discretionary programs when measured against the need for additional jail space.

The following month, the supervisors are scheduled to hold what could be the final of many hearings on a proposal to construct a 600-bed temporary men's jail adjacent to the Las Colinas Jail for women in Santee. Also in February, the county could secure up to $50 million in state funding for construction of a pretrial detention facility on 22 acres of federal land near downtown, provided that the federal government approves the plan.

During the first half of the year, county detention officials also plan to return to the former jail practice of "triple bunking"--stacking three beds vertically--to alleviate overcrowded conditions in the central jail in downtown San Diego and two other facilities, which now are "double bunked."

In addition, Robinson said that engineering and architectural plans for a 900-bed jail on east Otay Mesa are progressing on schedule. However, that jail--now expected to be about 50 beds larger than originally planned, at no additional cost, due to greater use of multiprisoner dormitory spaces instead of single cells--is not scheduled to be completed until at least late 1989.

With a new permanent jail at least two years away, county officials view the proposed Las Colinas expansion as the most immediate way by which the county can, in the words of Supervisor Susan Golding, "at least keep its head above water" in its effort to reduce overcrowding at the six county jails, where inmate populations now typically are double the facilities' official capacities.

However, the Las Colinas plan has drawn intense opposition from Santee city officials, who fear that the jail expansion would jeopardize their redevelopment plans. That opposition already has slowed progress on the Las Colinas project, and, with the long-running debate now approaching a climactic stage, the opposition says it still has some legislative and legal cards to play in their bid to block the plan.

At next February's meeting, the supervisors are scheduled to review an environmental impact statement on the Las Colinas plan that, if approved, could clear the way for the 600 temporary beds--enclosed in three relocatable modular dormitories--to be built by next May, Robinson said. Originally, county officials had hoped that the temporary jail would be in use by February.

The environmental report, released earlier this month, acknowledged that the proposed temporary men's detention facility is inconsistent with the surrounding development in Santee. But, noting that the county owns the property and that the plan is temporary--county officials have said that the temporary facility may be needed for only about three years, until the permanent jails are completed--the report concluded that little could be done to prevent the county from using its own land as it sees fit.

Santee officials, however, have faulted the environmental impact report as being based on "sloppy . . . findings" and "glaring mistakes." From Santee's perspective, the report simply makes it "quite clear the county's intent is to get that concentration camp built in Santee by hook or by crook," a statement issued by Santee City Manager Ronald Ballard's office said.

Threat of Legal Action

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