Grand Jury Approves of Santa Barbara County Detention Facilities

Members Are “Generally Satisfied” with Incarceration Conditions, But Concerns Linger Over New North County Jail

Members of the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury toured each of the county’s 17 detention facilities. | Credit: Paul Wellman

Members of the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury toured each of the county’s 17 detention facilities, and concluded they were “generally satisfied” with their management and conditions, though noted that several needed significant maintenance and repairs. Jurors praised the staff working at these facilities as being “courteous, professional, and demonstrating a high level of commitment to the community.” 

But there were a few surprises in the 19-page report, released this week. The main jail in Santa Barbara, for instance, is licensed to hold no more than 819 inmates, but there were 890 during the jurors’ February visit. The jail was also 13 custody officers shy of the 228 needed to qualify as fully staffed. Today, by contrast, the jail, which was built in 1971, holds just 536 inmates, which is far less than the overcrowding issues of 1988 that led to court-ordered remediation efforts. 

More alarming were cost overruns associated with the construction of the new North County jail, which is aimed to alleviate the main jails’ crowding problems. When first approved in 2016, the jail — which promises expanded medical and psychiatric treatment facilities and a more modern, efficient design —  was budgeted to cost $67 million. Today, the latest estimate is as high as $121 million. 

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Initially, construction of the new jail — with a licensed capacity for 376 inmates — was slated for completion in September 2018. That date was pushed back to May 2020, but that deadline will be missed as well. 

Causing many of the problems was the abrupt closure of Rosser International, the firm hired by the county to provide architectural, engineering, and professional design support. Critics of the new jail — who argued in favor of expanded treatment options rather than incarceration for the addicted and the mentally ill — argued early on that Rosser was on shaky financial grounds and was not a fit partner for the County of Santa Barbara. 

The Grand Jury also took issue with the small size of the exercise facilities and questioned how released inmates were expected to make the 10-mile trek to Santa Maria, the closest large metropolis. Also on their tour was a small holding tank in New Cuyama, which had trouble maintaining a water connection to the cell’s toilet, and both of the county’s juvenile detention facilities. The jurors noted that they were holding a combined 62 juveniles, yet have capacity for 256. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rosser International went bankrupt. It went out of business and ceased operating instead.


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