He’d Rather Be in Prison

Longest County Jail Term Yet

SETTING RECORDS: I decided to drop in on Sheriff Bill Brown’s jail to visit his most talked‑about new guest: 23-year man Jose Reyes Aceves.

Aceves just began what figures to be a record-setting jolt in our jail. I wanted to find out if he was happy to spend his drug-dealing sentence near home instead of (horrors!) state prison.

Even though he’ll probably only serve about 11 years instead of 23, so far, it’s the longest known term meted out under California’s new AB 109, in which nonviolent felons are sent to county jails in a move to relieve overcrowded prisons. Problem: Santa Barbara’s jail is also overcrowded.

No one has ever spent anywhere near that long in our jail. Most sentences are a year or less.

I figured Aceves would be relieved to be the sheriff’s guest instead of sharing a cell with a no-neck gangbanger and doing hard prison time. But when I faced the Santa Marian in jail Saturday — through thick glass and talking via phone — he launched into a litany of complaints about life in jail. “I’m in a room with 28 people. It’s loud. It’s bad here. There’s not enough room. There are no special programs for me here.”

He looked around at the mostly young fellow prisoners talking to loved ones through glass. “They’re here for one week, two weeks, or a month. It’s hard for me, 24 hours a day.” He sleeps in a double-decker bunk.

“It’s better for me to be in prison,” explained the chatty, good-humored Aceves, whose head was shaved, jail-style. The dark hair seen in his booking photo is gone.

Jose Aceves

In prison, “The food is better. The TV is better.” Aceves, born in Mexico, complained that his English isn’t good enough to understand some of the programs on the shared jail TV. He’s been in the U.S. since 1978, but he’s also been in and out of prison over the years.

He told me he’s a legal U.S. resident, but that’s doubtful because U.S. immigration officials have stamped a hold on his papers.

His Santa Maria conviction was his sixth for possession of drugs for sale or transportation, causing Superior Court Judge Kay Kuns to slap him with the max.

The 23-year sentence might have meant that Aceves, 47, would have been shuffling around the jail as a 70-year-old in bedroom slippers, slurping coffee and chatting with his old pals among the guards. But with good behavior, he’ll “only” be 58.

Maybe, I suggested, he should have thought of all this before getting caught with 80 grams of methamphetamine for sale. “I’m not guilty,” he protested. “Someone put it in my car.”

That strikes me as pretty careless handling of a quantity you can sell on the street for an estimated $12,800. Last July 16, a Santa Maria jury didn’t buy the story.

The sentence, he told me, is “too many years for nothing.” The problem with selling meth is that it’s highly addictive and turns heavy users into toothless zombies who resort to stealing from their grandmothers, snatching other people’s TVs, and turning tricks. Not a light thing to have on your conscience.

The jail wasn’t built for long-term inmates, Sheriff Brown told Tyler Hayden, Santa Barbara Independent reporter and editor. “It doesn’t have adequate educational, medical, recreational, or rehabilitation services for long-term inmates,” Brown said.

As for Aceves, “We’ll certainly have to take his needs into account for that lengthy amount of time,” Brown said. The unexpectedly large influx of 78 inmates through February under the law that just went into effect October 1 underscores the need for a new jail in the North County, the sheriff told Hayden.

With $60 million just okayed by the state, a new jail could be a reality by 2018. Aceves will be in his sixth year by then, with at least five more to go.

These are wasted years for him. But, ask critics of the so-called War on Drugs, is it also wasted money?

SORRY, GUYS: Santa Barbara’s “hometown bank” has a new hometown: Tokyo. It was just a rumor when I wrote two years ago about Santa Barbara Bank & Trust being bought by Japanese-owned Union Bank. But as announced Monday, it’ll be a reality later in the year. The three area businesspeople who opened it more than 50 years ago — Louis Lancaster, Reuben Irvin, and Ralph Raddue — aren’t around to witness this, and just as well.


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