Merced County supervisors on Tuesday approved a plan to consolidate the county's two jails into a new six-floor facility, which officials say is crucial in reducing the number of inmate assaults and jail escapes.
The plan, however, depends on the county receiving $40 million in state funding, and an additional contribution of $28 million from the county. The total cost of the project is about $67.8 million
Merced County will compete with 14 other medium-sized counties for the $40 million in funding, which comes from state Senate Bill 1022. The bill provides a total of $500 million for correctional facilities statewide.
The plan would close the 45-year-old Main Jail in downtown Merced and build a new 432-bed facility at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility on Sandy Mush Road.
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The new facility would have a total of 797 beds, an increase of 44 beds. The Sandy Mush facility has about 564 beds, the Main Jail has 189.
Sheriff's Department officials on Tuesday showed county supervisors numerous photos of broken-down walls and ceilings at inmate dorms at Sandy Mush.
Inmates punched holes through the facility's drywall panels to attack rival gang members or escape, according to Capt. Greg Sullivan. Other issues at Sandy Mush include attacks on jail staff and the smuggling in of large amounts of contraband.
"We keep reading about escapes and issues at Sandy Mush," Sullivan said of the facility built in 1990. "It was never designed to be used for medium- and high-risk offenders."
In one year, there were 280 inmate assaults, 87 riots, 23 assaults on jail employees and seven escapes at both county jails, according to documents.
Assembly Bill 109, the state's prison realignment law, caused an increase in jail sentences at county jails, Sullivan said. The jails were intended for short-term sentences, but documents show roughly 80 inmates are serving sentences of one year or more.
County officials agreed Tuesday that a new jail is necessary, but some wondered how the county will come up with the money to fund the project.
"I'm concerned where $28 million will come from," said board Chairwoman and District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey during the meeting. "But I guess we'll look at that if we get the grant."
County Executive Officer Jim Brown said the county has the next few years to explore funding options.
"If this moves forward, we're probably three to four years away (from building), so we have time to plan," Brown said after the meeting. "We know long-term that we have to do something. It's a priority for the community."
Pazin said consolidating the two jails will offset some of the operating costs of the new facility, which are projected at $2.6 million a year.
"It's costing us nearly a million dollars to keep both facilities operating," Pazin said. "They're easily destroyed and it's very destructive. So if we can consolidate the inmate population to one location, if becomes cost-neutral."
Pazin said the consolidation creates four new correctional technician jobs and reduces the county's carbon footprint by eliminating transportation of food and inmates for medical services and court proceedings.
Consultant Doug Papagni, who worked with Madera and Fresno counties on similar projects, said the dorms at the Sandy Mush complex are not "real jail beds."
"Sandy Mush does not have real jail beds. It's Sheetrock, like your house," Papagni said. "So under the plan, we'll be gaining 600 real jail beds."
Papagni said Merced County has a strong chance of securing the $40 million in state funding.
"No one will have any advantage because all counties are in a tough position because of AB 109," he said. "But readiness will be a factor. Merced has adopted a plan to move forward ... and that's huge."