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A Jailer Juggles : Busy Lockup Seeks More Beds to Cope

February 07, 1988|MICHAEL CONNELLY | Times Staff Writer

Each day, Donald Doll figures he must be at work by 3 a.m. if he is to have enough time to get all the paper work in order and the many travelers ready for their buses.

By 7:30 a.m., the buses pull up to the loading terminal and Doll is there, checking transfer papers and escorting people to the proper loading queues. The buses fill and head south to downtown, north to San Fernando or just around the corner in Van Nuys.

Some days, usually Mondays, it is so busy that Doll almost feels that he is working at a bus depot. But the milieu in which he works is far different.

Doll is senior station officer at the Los Angeles Police Department's Van Nuys Jail. The 288-bed jail is one of the busiest in the city, serving as a way station for criminal suspects from Pacoima to San Pedro.

The Van Nuys Jail usually holds criminal suspects only one to three days as they await arraignment and then are either released on bail or transferred to County Jail. But the growing number of people being processed at the jail has caused frequent crowding on weekends and holidays--the times when courts are closed, and the flow of inmates out of jail is stopped.

Expansion Plan

The problem has forced jail administrators to come up with a plan to expand the number of beds at the jail by nearly half.

Just how busy the jail gets is reflected in Donald Doll's job as the officer in charge of transferring prisoners each morning from the jail to the courts for arraignments and other hearings. When Doll first took on the assignment 15 years ago, he would arrive between 5 and 6 a.m. and have the paper work and prisoners ready when the buses rolled at 7:30.

His duties haven't changed much since then, just the number of people he has to process. These days, Doll has begun to think his 3 a.m. starting time isn't early enough.

"Over the years, I've had to come in earlier and earlier," Doll recently lamented. "But 3 o'clock might not be early enough. We are seeing more and more people that have to be moved all over the city."

Los Angeles police routinely use the jail as a stopgap to crowding in the many divisional lockups and the main 450-bed jail downtown at Parker Center. On any day, the Van Nuys facility houses suspects arrested in all areas of the city and by several agencies.

That dependence on the Van Nuys facility, jail administrators said, has intensified in recent years, in part because the county jail system run by the Sheriff's Department is under a court order to curtail its own crowding. As a result, the County Jail often can't take overflow inmates from the city.

In the last year or so, the situation in Van Nuys has become so acute that inmates frequently end up sleeping on floors on weekends and holidays. In an attempt to alleviate the problem, the department has come up with a plan to make use of previously unused space in the jail to increase its capacity by at least 135 beds.

"Van Nuys is our overflow jail," said Capt. William Hall, commander of the LAPD's Jail Division. "It is the jail we have gone to when we were looking for space. When we get full at Parker Center, we send people up there.

"When the sheriff's office had the space" in County Jail, "they would take the overflow. That is not available to us now. So we are faced with a juggling act. We are trying to dodge the problem of overcrowding. We want to keep people off the floor."

In 1987, according to police statistics, 31,266 people were booked at the Van Nuys Jail, about 12,000 of them for felonies, the rest for misdemeanors. The numbers are steadily growing. In 1985, 26,780 people were processed at the jail and, in 1986, 29,813. In most misdemeanor cases, suspects can be released immediately. But officials said most felony suspects are held at the jail until their arraignments, usually within 48 hours unless a weekend or holiday is involved.

On days when police task-force operations make drug or vice sweeps in the San Fernando Valley or West Los Angeles, the jail also is jammed.

"It only takes one holiday weekend," said Lt. Lance Romero, officer in charge of the jail. One court day off, he said, "and we get killed. We put out the mats and people are sleeping on the floor." When several task-force operations happen on the same weekend, he said, the jail fills up. "One operation is not significant, but when you have vice doing something and narcotics doing another operation, the people they are taking to jail add up."

Romero said jail officials often are informed ahead of time when task forces will be making sweeps. He then can juggle the schedules of the jail's 65 staff members to have the maximum people available when the jail is most crowded. What can't be juggled is the number of beds available.

Statistics on how frequently the inmates at the Van Nuys Jail exceed the number of beds were not available, but, Hall said, "it is a constant weekend and holiday problem."

A report contained in the proposal for the 135 more beds gave Feb. 17, 1987, as an example of how bad the problem can be.

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