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Pasadena Jail Is a Modern Wonder : Corrections: The high-tech 'podular' cell layout and computerized control system at the new facility are being hailed as the latest in design.

September 27, 1990|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PASADENA — It might be mistaken for an illuminated directory at a shopping mall. Colored lines mark off numbered units, and the familiar phrase "You Are Here" is inscribed in the middle.

This is the main control console of the Pasadena Police Department's new $3-million jail, set to open Oct. 11. The high-tech console is just one feature of what is being heralded as the latest in jail design.

The console is the brain that controls almost every mechanical function of the jail, from opening individual cell doors to changing channels on the inmates' television sets. Any jail officer monitoring the console can speak to inmates via intercom, pinpoint where fire alarms have been activated and call for reinforcements in case of emergency.

The physical layout of the jail is as innovative as its computerized control system, police officials say. It is the first city jail in California to use the "podular" system, a relatively new concept in jail architecture.

The 70-bed facility, in the basement of Pasadena's new $23-million police building, is arranged into six pods enclosed by shatterproof glass. Each pod has four to 16 individual cells and a common area for inmates, mostly suspects awaiting arraignment. The pods surround the central control room.

"With this setup, the officer in the control room can keep an eye on everything" and see into nearly every cell, jail Sgt. Jay D'Angelo said.

This is in stark contrast with the city's present "linear" jail, the most common type, which requires constant patrol up and down long corridors of cells.

The new jail is being hailed by corrections officials around the state as a model.

Jack Pederson, a deputy director for the state Board of Corrections in Sacramento, said the Pasadena facility and others like it represent "a 500-year leap in (jail) construction over the last 20 years. Typically, jails haven't changed in design from the 16th to the 19th centuries."

Burbank police officials have visited the Pasadena facility and are studying it as they help design a structure that will house Burbank's jail, police and fire departments and city prosecutor's office.

Quick and easy supervision of cells is essential to prevent suicide attempts and violence between inmates, D'Angelo said. This is of particular concern for Pasadena, which has had four suicides in its jail since 1986, including one this month.

Officials at the Siskiyou County Jail in Northern California, an 86-bed facility that has employed the podular design for more than two years, say their experience seems to bear out D'Angelo's assertion.

Lt. Gary Palmer, commander of the Siskiyou County Jail, said that before the podular system, "we used to average approximately two inmate-on-inmate assaults a week. In the past two years of operation, we've had a total of six."

Palmer attributes the drop to the new ease of supervision and to a more pleasant atmosphere in the jail.

Pasadena police hope that their new jail will also be more pleasant than the old one. The new jail, far more spacious than its 43-bed predecessor, conforms to the latest state regulations that specify a minimum of 60 square feet per inmate.

In fact, upper bunk beds can be installed in nearly all the individual cells without violating the regulations. At present, inmates must be transferred to Los Angeles County Jail every weekend to relieve overcrowding.

Overcrowding is only one of the problems at the present jail, with its small, barred cells, fractured sinks, cracked mattresses and dusty blinds. The beige and green paint on the walls is peeling. Collective holding tanks reek of urine. Pipes leak.

At the new jail, cells have doors and windows, not bars. The smell of fresh paint attests to the dazzling white walls and royal blue doors. The complex is well lit, and telephones for collect calls are available in each pod. Television sets--"great baby-sitters," D'Angelo calls them--keep inmates company.

The user-friendly atmosphere of similar jails impressed Pasadena Police Sgt. Tom Oldfield, a member of the jail planning team that visited county jails around the state after money for the jail was approved in late 1986. The podular Contra Costa County Jail in Martinez was particularly impressive, Oldfield said.

"It was just the way it worked--the openness of the jail," he said. "It was a lot less like what we've been used to as a jail as far as the bars and the dark cells are concerned. The feel of the jail was different: more open, a lot less oppressive. . . . Our (current) jail is like San Quentin or Alcatraz.

"If you put somebody in a completely negative environment, they have no reason to do what you'd like them to do. But if you give them a reasonable environment and some perks--like something to read, TV to watch or checkers to play--they'll behave."

And practically speaking, "it's real hard to hang yourself from a glass window," Oldfield said, referring to the fact that in most jail suicides, inmates hanged themselves from cell bars.

"A lot of people were offended at making the jail a nice place--like, 'Why make it nice for criminals?' " he said. "But in our situation, no one's been convicted yet, so why go into the punishment mode? It's just a place for them to stay until they see a judge."

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