Orange County early next month hopes to win state funding for a $40 million rebuild of its Intake Release Center in Santa Ana to improve health services for the 60,000 inmates booked annually into county jails.

In addition to processing inmates in the five jails run by the county Sheriff’s Department, the center serves as the primary location for health/mental services for the system of about 6,500 inmates.

The reconstruction of two floors of the center will increase “special use” beds from 115 to 257, officials say, improving a care system criticized as recently as last year by federal officials.

The center itself is rated for 408 beds — but because the average daily population associated with the center is 640, the additional inmates are housed at the system’s other facilities, officials say. Some of those inmates then receive care from roving health staff.

But with reconstruction, the number of center beds will be reduced to 354, due to space limitations.

Officials of the county Health Care Agency, which provides health services at the center, say they hope the project will operate more efficiently for inmates in a system in flux — as the state seeks to reduce its prison populations while shifting inmates to rehabilitation.

The statewide drive came after voters approved a proposition and laws were enacted reducing the severity of criminal penalties for most non-serious and non-violent property and drug crimes, while also having parole violators serve sentences in county jails and hopefully access training programs.

“We can take sicker inmates and have them in one general area; that is really the impetus for the project,” said Kim Pearson, an HCA deputy director.

“We want to make it what we want it to be from a health perspective — instead of having a physician or psychiatrist driving around to jails.”

Among these inmates, officials say, there are varying degrees of health-care needs — for diabetes, dental care, HIV infection and, in particular, mental disorders.

Last fiscal year, according to a county grand jury report, approximately 1,100 inmates with mental disorders cycled monthly through the center. About 40 percent of those inmates require psychotropic drugs regularly, Pearson noted. Suicide risk is also a significant issue.

After about five years of a federal review prompted by jail death cases, most notably the beating death of John D. Chamberlain in 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote the county in March 2014 that a number of health concerns remain.

Specifically, the report said, “a limited array of mental health treatment and housing options results in over-reliance on unsafe segregation cells and restrictive interventions.”

In response, county officials said they’ve installed a electronic medical record system, worked to improve all care, and are more closely monitoring inmate isolations.

Sheriff’s Department officials, who are applying for the state funds for the intake center, say they have tailored their bid to try to win the money in a competitive process to do the most for inmate care.

“We feel we have a pretty good chance of funding,” said Matt Monzon, a project manager for the Sheriff’s department.

But if the county is successful in securing the state funds, the realization of the efficiencies and enhancements won’t come till 2021– when the Intake Release Center work would be completed under the current financing and construction schedule.

Last August, the county Board of Supervisors approved an application to the California Board of State and Community Corrections for nearly $36 million for the Intake Release Center. With the application, the county agreed to be responsible for nearly $4 million of the overall cost.

The competition for the funding is fierce. Six other large counties in the state are seeking $80 million each, records show.

Orange County specifically applied for a lower amount to rehabilitate an existing facility — which wouldn’t require added permits — to increase their chances of funding, said Monzon.

“This was a strategic way to maybe get a piece of the pie,” he added.

The state board is to make interim recommendations on Nov. 12, after its experts rank county applications for the funds.

Jails in Orange County have been lightening rods for controversy, particularly the Santa Ana facilities, because of relations between many community members and local and federal law enforcement.

In 2007 before inmate realignment, Orange County applied for and was to receive $100 million from the state to expand the James L. Musick Facility near Irvine.

But the Board of Supervisors later rescinded the request and rejected funding because the state also wanted to build a prisoner release center as a transition facility in conjunction with the jail addition.

In 2012 after a change in state requirements, Orange County again won a $100 million award to expand the Musick facility, opting then to accept the funds.

Then Irvine sued to block the expansion.

But earlier this month, Irvine lost in the appellate court, apparently effectively ending the case.

The 512-bed expansion of Musick with the $100 million is on track for completion in 2019, said Steven Kea, assistant sheriff for custodian operations.

Subsequently, the county also won from the state $80 million for training/rehabilitation operations at Musick, along with 384 new beds, said Kea, adding that project is hoped to be completed at the same time.

Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at

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