Jailhouse Blues

James Russell Scott was a carpenter and painter before he was arrested on a drug violation and sentenced in 2011 to a seven-year term in county jail.

UPDATE: Salinas Valley State Prison gains national notoriety for its inmate rehabilitation programs, watch and read below to find out more.

This is James Russell Scott’s plan: He wants to get out of Monterey County for a bit – maybe go on a cruise – and then start looking for work, probably in construction like before. He wants a vacation. He’s been locked up in the Monterey County Jail for the past three years.

Scott is one of a new class of inmates, 14 percent of the jail’s population, facing long local jail sentences instead of spending that time in state prison. In the past, inmates sentenced to jail would be there for less than a year. Prison was reserved for longer lockups.

But realignment – the name for the state’s massive prison overhaul that started in 2011 – has changed things. The state was forced by a lawsuit to unpack its dangerously crowded prisons, so it started shifting responsibilities, and inmates, to counties.

Now low-level felons are getting sent to local jails, which weren’t built for lengthy stays or to provide the kind of rehab long term inmates need.

“I would have preferred to go to prison,” says 50-year-old Scott, an addict who was convicted on felony drug charges. “Their medical facilities are better, their food is better – everything is better. They have TV, radio, yards.”

Scott’s been in prison before, but under the new realignment rules he was sentenced to a seven-year term in the jail. He’ll only serve half for good conduct.

Inmates who prefer prison have a point.

“You could fit our entire campus into one of these grassy fields at Soledad,” says Sheriff Scott Miller. “I think a lot of inmates enjoy that type of environment.”

Prisons don’t just have more lawn space – they have more space for classes and treatment. Right now the county jail has one re-entry and rehabilitation classroom. The space is frequently booked and can’t handle new programs.

recently passed budget, if approved by the County Board of Supervisors, will allot funds to build two more.

“[When] we have space available, we can look at expanding our [program] offerings,” Miller says.

Meanwhile, the California State Sheriff’s Association is in discussion with Gov. Jerry Brown about putting caps on jail terms. One inmate in Los Angeles County was sentenced to more than 40 years.

“It’s one thing to have someone here for four years,” Miller says, “and it’s quite another to have someone for 24 years.”

Despite the state’s insistence that counties will be better suited to rehabilitate inmates, critics of the state’s incarceration system see realignment as simply shuffling inmates from one location – prison – to another – jail.

Locally, activists are becoming a bigger part of the conversation. The latest meeting of the Community Corrections Partnership in mid-March drew about a dozen community members, including representatives from a newly formed group called the Monterey County Coalition for Jail Reform.

Activists think more money should be spent on treatment and prevention rather than on jail expansion, which Monterey County is gearing up for.

“You’re not really working on long – term efforts to reduce the population and why we’re criminalizing so many people who are poor,” says Tash Nguyen, an activist with prison reform group Sin Barras. “You’re just creating a larger landscape where jails exist.”

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