Merced County Jail set to receive gang members

A recent decision by officials at the sheriff's department to move dozens of Norteno gangsters to the Main Jail has correctional officers worried about violent outbreaks at the facility -- but some think the change will improve safety.

The move brings about 55 Norteno inmates from the John Latorraca Correctional Center on Sandy Mush Road to the Main Jail in downtown Merced. Also housed at the Main Jail are several dozen Surreno gang members.

Though the Main Jail is more secure than the JLCC, the corrections division has been through several layoffs, and moving the Nortenos downtown compromises public, officer and inmate safety, said Jeff Miller, spokesman for the Merced County Sheriff's Employee Association.

Furthermore, this move means the Main Jail, which Sheriff Mark Pazin had proposed to shut down to deal with budget cuts, is back to full capacity, with the exception of female bookings, Miller said.

"We told him his plan would fail -- everything we said came true," Miller said. "The sheriff is trying to run the Main Jail at full capacity, minus two dozen officers."

Violent outbreaks involving Norteno gang members had already erupted at the JLCC, and moving them back to the Main Jail with a smaller staff is "a time bomb waiting to go off," he said.

"We were right, he was wrong, and now he's trying to cover his tracks," Miller added.

However, just because rival gang members are under the same roof doesn't mean violence will follow, said Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman.

Despite recent cuts, staffing is better at the Main Jail than it is at the JLCC and facilities are more secure, he said. "We do what we have to because of facilities, because of staffing, because of officer safety," MacKenzie said, adding that moving inmates from one facility to another is "pretty much business as usual."

Moving the Nortenos to the Main Jail is expected to bring more efficiency, and rival gangs won't be mixed together, he said. Yard time will be staggered to prevent confrontations and they won't be housed in the same cell blocks.

"The reason we adjust inmates or move inmates is to make the overall picture better for staffing, for officer safety and for inmate safety -- that's just how we have to do it," MacKenzie said.

There are other motives for moving inmates beyond safety.

"There's also the price of doing business," MacKenzie said. "Some of them may have court, so we may have to move them because it's easier or safer to transport from here to across the street than it is from the Mush (John Latorraca Correctional Center)."

Before the JLCC was built, rival gangs had to be housed under the same roof anyway.

"Obviously, it'd be ideal if we could keep them segregated and separated, but that's just not always possible, depending on staffing circumstances and jail population," MacKenzie said. "We do the best that we can."

With recent cuts to full- and part-time staff, the correctional division is down by more than two dozen positions, but Mackenzie said the patrol side of the department is also at minimum staffing.

Recently, there's been one officer assigned to the cell blocks, according to the union. If inmates have to be transported, someone has to be pulled off another post because of the low staffing levels.

The cuts came about after county leaders imposed cuts to deal with a $20 million deficit. With a growing deficit this year of $10 million, the outlook at both jails isn't looking much brighter.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.