Anticipating inmate surge, county considers regional approach to housing them.

Home Base: County Supervisor Simon Salinas says a regional re-entry facility would support state realignment goals and keep inmates closer to their families.

When Sheriff Scott Miller went on a field trip in December to tour a shuttered juvenile correctional facility near Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County, he was mostly struck by how big the place was, especially considering the Monterey County Jail is regularly filled to capacity. 

At its peak, the 200-acre El Paso De Robles School for Boys housed 1,000 young inmates. It’s been empty since 2008, and on Dec. 19 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation listed the place as surplus property, meaning the state’s looking to sell it. 

And Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas, along with San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Frank Mecham, might be interested in their counties buying. At least, they want to bring the idea to their respective county boards. 

“It’s a small city that’s sitting here and deteriorating and going nowhere,” Mecham says. “I see a tremendous opportunity.”

The opportunity Mecham envisions is still nebulous, but he asked Salinas to consider whether Monterey County would think about housing inmates there as AB 109, the state’s prison realignment bill, sends more nonviolent offenders back to the counties. 

“If [the state] can’t put together any kind of re-entry facility, why can’t we establish our own?” Mecham asks. His concept includes a CalFire training center and vocational classes. 

Salinas is optimistic about the prospect: “If Supervisor Mecham is willing to do this, that’s half the battle – finding a county that doesn’t say, ‘Hell no, we don’t want your inmates.’”

Miller’s been shopping around for alternative places to house inmates from the county jail, which is designed to house 825 but regularly sleeps closer to 1,100 people. 

Alameda County Jail, for example, would accept inmates for a sliding scale fee going as low as $85 per person per night – but the numbers didn’t quite work out. “The price really drops if we send them 100 inmates,” Miller says. “The problem is, we don’t have the money to send 100 inmates at that price. And we don’t quite have 100 inmates.”

Miller thinks if enough nearby counties (Kings County has also expressed interest) can partner up, the Paso Robles location would be easier on families. “If there’s a plan that makes financial sense, logistically that’s one of the best locations we could have,” he says. 

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There’s no budget yet, and Mecham is just beginning to talk numbers with county officials. Salinas is working to determine which county committee would vet an initial proposal, and will go from there.

“The great big 900-pound gorilla is staffing,” Mecham says. “I think if there were inter-jurisdictional cooperation, you have a much better opportunity to go to the state and seek grant funding or financial assistance.”

The county jail is slated for an expansion, but still faces a need for more long-term housing. Historically, about two-thirds of county jail inmates were there briefly awaiting court dates, and the rest were serving sentences of up to a year. 

Miller expects realignment to flip that ratio, meaning at least 60 percent of jail inmates will be serving longer-term sentences. One current inmate, for example, is serving an 8-and-a-half-year sentence at the jail instead of state prison.

“It’s another driver for why we’re looking for more permanent housing,” Miller says. “County jails are not equipped, partly because there’s no classroom space or vocational training.”

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