If you gotta do time, this is the place.
The Rose Valley Work Camp, a minimum-security jail that opened May 1, is nestled in a picturesque glen at the foot of the Topa Topa Mountains, ruggedly beautiful terrain about half an hour north of Ojai.
Only a six-foot-high chain-link fence, topped with a few strands of barbed wire, separates the camp from the outside world. The small Quonset huts that serve as bunkhouses don't even have locks. And inmates, most of whom are there for drug- or alcohol-related offenses, are given time to watch TV, play Ping-Pong, shoot pool, lift weights or toss horseshoes on the 10-acre grounds.
"So far, I haven't wanted to leave," said Doug Webb, 24, who is about halfway through a nine-month sentence for being under the influence of cocaine and for possession of the drug. "You get to be outside. You can get a tan. It's like a summer vacation camp."
The Ventura County Sheriff's Department, however, makes sure that nobody's stay gets too cushy.
In what officials describe as a bold experiment in rehabilitation, the relaxed security at Rose Valley is balanced by character-building, boot camp-style training.
It's rise and shine at 5:50 a.m., followed by a brisk jog and calisthenics. Beds must be made tight enough for a quarter to bounce. Work boots are buffed every day to a shine. And everyone puts in a full eight hours of work, which for now mostly entails readying the camp to handle the 160 inmates who will eventually be housed there.
"Self-esteem is the key up here," Assistant Sheriff Richard S. Bryce told a group of reporters touring the facility last week. "We want to help them realize they're viable people, that they're worth something. . . . It's not a country club. It's hard work."
It's also a fairly inexpensive way to ease pressure on the county's badly overcrowded jail system, which has been at the center of often-rancorous debate lately. The main Ventura facility, which was designed to hold 400 inmates, houses about 1,100. And county officials are at odds over where a new prison should be built.
The Rose Valley camp, which cost $311,000, siphons off inmates from the Honor Farm branch jail in Ojai, the county's only other minimum-security facility. There, about 400 men and women serve sentences while growing crops, doing carpentry and raising about 1,000 hogs for slaughter.
In selecting inmates for Rose Valley, deputies say they look for people with the least violent backgrounds and the least criminal sophistication, whose main problem has been an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
As part of their stay at the work camp, inmates, whose sentences range from 30 days to about a year, must submit to random drug testing and are encouraged to attend drug and alcohol education classes.
"They have to be willing to cooperate," Sheriff John V. Gillespie said. "If they screw up, they're sent back. They know there's no second chance."
The camp's congenial atmosphere probably wasn't what White House drug czar William J. Bennett had in mind when he endorsed federal boot camps for drug offenders last month.
"The recidivism is very, very low because it is so grueling and so unpleasant, people don't want to go back to it," Bennett told reporters on "Face the Nation," the Sunday morning news program.
Gillespie, while advocating tough discipline at the camp, said he wants Rose Valley to be a constructive experience.
The camp, for instance, has a wood shop called "Santa's Workshop," where inmates use scrap lumber to make hobbyhorses and trains for needy children. In the cafeteria, inmates are allowed to serve themselves and may return for seconds. Visits from relatives may last three hours and can include a "simple kiss and hug," according to posted rules, "but definitely not more avid contact."
Most of all, Gillespie said, the inmates can take satisfaction in having spent 40,000 hours since August renovating the facility, which until 1972 was a U.S. Navy training base for Seabees. Framed color photos posted in front of the barracks show the mess that was cleared by the inmates, whose work was estimated to have saved the county $2 million to $3 million.
"I'm proud of you," Gillespie told about a dozen inmates who were standing at military attention the other day.
"Thank you, sir," one of them barked.
Add neatly mowed lawns, flower beds, welcome mats in front of the bunk houses and hundreds of swallows darting back and forth in the soft breeze and, well, if you gotta do time. . . .
"This is the place," said Mike Holmes, 23, of Port Hueneme, who completes his sentence in two weeks. "They expect a little more out of you, but you can't beat the view."