Santa Ana Reverses Plans to Downsize Jail, After New Plan is Said to Save Money and Jobs

The Santa Ana city jail. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Santa Ana officials are reversing their June decision to reduce staffing at their mostly-empty jail, agreeing instead to hold an additional 173 U.S. Marshals detainees at a time for the next two years, after the acting police chief said it would reduce the city’s budget deficits and save jail jobs.

Acting Police Chief David Valentin, who recommended City Council members approve the changes, said it would prevent the layoffs of 26 jail employees while also cutting the city’s budget deficits by $4 million this fiscal year and $6.2 million next fiscal year.

The jail staff reductions had been expected after the City Council in February cut the number of detainees it would hold for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as the city phased out the contract. ICE responded by cancelling the contract.

The city jail does not house people arrested by city police, because the county Sheriff’s Department holds city arrestees in county jail at no cost to cities.

Faced with millions of dollars per year in construction debt for its jail, as well as staffing costs, Santa Ana rents out its 480-bed jail to federal agencies. And with the ICE detainees gone, the jail has been mostly empty – operating at 37 percent of capacity as of Tuesday – and thus not in need of as many staff as it once had.

With the jail mostly empty, City Council members approved a plan on June 20 to downsize two of the jail’s four floors into a lesser-capacity holding facility this coming January. And they’ve commissioned a study to look at converting much of the facility to other purposes like a mental health center, digital data center, or homeless shelter.

The Marshals officials said they needed additional capacity due to renovations at their downtown Los Angeles detention center from September 2017 to August 2019, Valentin wrote in his report, adding the federal agency asked to transfer 173 additional inmates to Santa Ana’s jail.

The acting chief brought the expansion to the council, along with a request that the council direct staff to bring back a budget and staffing plan to the council on Aug. 15 to accommodate the expansion.

The council approved both requests on a 4-1 vote Tuesday, with Mayor Miguel Pulido and councilmen Jose Solorio, Juan Villegas, and Vicente Sarmiento supporting it.

The growth in Marshals inmates will give the city time “to be more thoughtful” in studying future opportunities for the jail, Sarmiento said.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez voted against the expansion, reiterating her longstanding position that the city should get out of the jail business altogether. Councilmen Sal Tinajero and David Benavides were absent.

The U.S. Marshal’s Service is responsible for transporting federal prisoners, capturing fugitives who have fled from custody, and arresting people on federal warrants.

On Tuesday, the jail had 199 inmates. With the Marshals expansion, jail officials expect to expand to between 300 and 340 inmates, or 63 percent to 71 percent of capacity.

The expanded Marshals contract will reduce the city’s overall budget deficit by $4 million this fiscal year and $6.2 million next fiscal year, according to Valentin’s report to the council.

That would bring the overall budget deficit down from $9.3 million to $5.3 million this fiscal year and from $8.9 million to $2.7 million next fiscal year, he wrote.

Much of the ongoing deficits were created when the City Council intentionally prompted ICE to cancel its jail contract with the city, a move city staff say cost Santa Ana $11 million in revenue each year.

The increase in Marshals detainees is projected to bring $8 million in extra revenue to the city this fiscal year – covering most of the $11 million-per-year ICE contract loss.

To accommodate the expanded inmate population, Valentin is asking the council to add $6.2 million to this year’s jail budget that was removed in the council’s June 20 budget approval, as well as the jail staff positions that were cut from the budget.

The council is scheduled to vote on the budget and staffing increase on Aug. 15.

At the same time, city officials are studying whether to change the jail’s use going forward. They hired a jail construction company, Vanir Construction Management, to study the facility and potential future uses for the jail.

Vanir representatives gave an update to the City Council at Tuesday’s meeting, saying the jail has nice furnishings for inmates, but is “deficient” by today’s standards in the amount of space it provides for inmates if it was at or near full capacity.

Jails built today have about 500 square feet per inmate, yet Santa Ana’s has only 350 square feet per inmate, according to the jail construction and consulting company.

Martinez noted the consultants found the jail is inadequate under the Americans with Disabilities Act, commonly known as the ADA.

“We could get fined,” Martinez said. “This report is indicating that we are not in compliance with ADA.”

Vanir plans to study several options for the jail’s future uses, including whether to keep it as a jail or pursue “out of the box” ideas like a mental health facility, digital data center, homeless shelter, youth hostel, or police evidence and storage facility.

Martinez and two public commenters supported the data center concept, saying it would help the city and county governments, as well as local schools and colleges.

Martinez said it would require less retrofitting of the jail than other uses, because it would house mostly computers.

Councilman Jose Solorio liked the idea of using the jail as a re-entry facility to assist state prison inmates who are being re-integrated back into society, noting many inmates get out with very little money and few opportunities.

The consultants plan to take into account the council members’ ranking of what’s most important to them for potential jail uses – including how they rank the community benefits versus generating income to the city. 

Some public commenters suggested Vanir would be biased in favor of keeping the facility as a jail.

“As a [jail] construction company, Vanir has an inherent conflict of interest to make such an assessment,” said Daisy Ramirez, a jails project coordinator with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Sarmiento said he was “disappointed” with the consultants’ presentation, saying there was a lack of community outreach to get ideas from the public about how the jail could be used.

The councilman said he doesn’t think the consultants are “moving at the right pace” and he doesn’t think the results so far “are satisfactory.”

Solorio agreed there should be more outreach, particularly to neighborhood and business groups.

Mayor Miguel Pulido recused himself from the discussion of the jail re-use study, saying he knows a woman who owns Vanir, Dorene C. Dominguez. She is also the company’s chairwoman and CEO.

At a prior meeting, in April when Vanir’s contract was approved, Pulido said he was recusing himself because in his career as an engineer there was a time when he was going to “potentially work” with Dominguez’s firm.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.