Everyone agrees that, at four decades old, the county women’s jail is run down. But what’s that doing to the inmates?
The lights overhead are blazing—"it’s like UV rays in here,” says one inmate—but many of the 67 residents of the women’s section of the Butte County Jail are fast asleep, curled up outside the covers, fully dressed.
Sleeping in the middle of the day is common here because, more than anything else, jail is so damn boring. Reading, letter-writing and TV watching pass most of the hours from 7 in the morning until 10 at night. In one group cell, a woman playing solitaire seems animated by comparison.
“It’s time, just time,” shrugs high-security inmate Georgia Griffith, who’s nearing the end of a seven-month stint behind bars.
Last summer, the condition of the 40-year-old women’s jail disturbed the Butte County Grand Jury so much that, in its final report, it used the word “deplorable” to describe the facility.
“Although the women’s section meets minimum state requirements, it is run down and shabby, generating a completely demeaning atmosphere,” the jurors wrote.
Sheriff Perry Reniff, who inherited the jail when he took office this month, sees little that can be done to improve conditions, which actually exceed the minimum state standards, thanks to a judge-approved agreement that arose from a 1985 court case. The county built a new section for men in 1994, but it hasn’t roused the funds to better serve the growing population of incarcerated women.
“If you’ll look at the standards that are set by the Board of Corrections, they’re usually pretty high,” Reniff said. There are rules governing everything from medical care to food quality to square footage per inmate.
Mike Bush, the Sacramento-based field representative for the California Board of Corrections, inspected the jail a few weeks ago and just dropped his report in the mail to Butte County officials.
“It’s the same problem that the Grand Jury found,” Bush says. “It’s old, and we all know it’s old.”
Bush directed the county to gradually replace all the fixtures (toilets, sinks and showers) in the women’s jail and “bring it up to date.”
“Anything unsanitary and unhealthy needs to be replaced,” he says, mentioning mold in the showers and peeling paint on the fixtures.
Specifically, the county must get rid of the old-style, unsanitary drinking fountains that are operated by using a finger to divert the flow of sink water upward. Replacing the painted metal sinks with stainless steel is expected to cost nearly $100,000, says Capt. Gary Keeler, the jail commander.
If the women’s jail were being held to current standards, rather than those from 1962, the year it was built, “the whole jail would be out of compliance,” Bush says. In fact, if money were no object, he’d recommend that the building be demolished.
But some advocates, such as Chico State University Professor Paul Persons, the attorney who filed the class action suit that resulted in the judge-approved consent decree, say the minimum is not enough, not if a community is looking to do more than protect itself by locking certain people away for a while.
“A county jail is designed to put people back into our community,” he says. “To treat them poorly does not help us at all.”
Society’s idea of what’s right when it comes to its incarcerated citizens varies depending on the citizens one asks. Some accept the role of benevolent caretakers, while plenty of taxpayers would be indignant to learn that the inmates get cable TV.
Butte County Jail is the limbo of the criminal-justice system. Here, inmates await trial, wait to be transferred to prison or serve out sentences of less than a year. Some of them haven’t even been found guilty of anything; they just can’t afford bail.
“Our Constitution provides that a person is innocent until proven guilty and that incarceration cannot be punishment but rather holding that person to assure his or her presence at a trial,” Persons says.
The women are divided into three groups, housed and identifiable by the color of their jail-issue jumpsuits. Those in red are high security. Inmates wearing orange are medium security, while women in yellow are, as Corrections Sergeant Dan Young puts it, the maximum-security “problem children.”
In June 2002, the most recent month for which the Board of Corrections has calculated statistics, of the 66 women housed in the Butte County Jail, 33 were still awaiting sentencing, or being held for lack of bail money. More than two-thirds of all inmates incarcerated there had been arrested on felony, not misdemeanor, charges. Unlike similar-sized jail systems in five of six comparable counties provided by the BOC, Butte County Jail has no minimum-security inmates.
The women’s jail is situated off County Center Drive in Oroville, separated from the men’s quarters by a passageway surrounded by wire fencing. This is where the inmates exercise one hour a day.
A maze of hallways lined with small, bar-covered rooms brings to mind the jails of old movies. One almost expects one of the inmates to grab a tin cup and run it along the metal bars.
The women’s jail is laid out in old-style linear fashion, with 12-bed and 8-bed tanks, plus single cells. The theory, says Young, is that the newer, “pod” concept—as is used in the men’s facility—is easier and cheaper in terms of staff to maintain securely. Nowadays, jailers bring meals to the cells rather than risk a riot in an Alcatraz-style central dining area. “[The idea is] put the inmate in an area and leave him there.”
A recent visit from Reniff breaks the monotony and turns the somber jail into party central.
“He’s our new landlord, guys,” announces one woman.
“I voted for him, last time, when he lost,” offers another. Well, Reniff retorts with a grin, “you still have to stay here.”
The Grand Jury made mention of the jail’s dim lighting, which Reniff says guards had turned down to save on power bills and because the inmates preferred it that way. Today, the lighting situation is clearly at the forefront of the sheriff’s concerns, and he takes an informal survey from the hallway side of the bars.
“Do you like it light or do you like it darker?” he asks. Apparently, those who run the jail have taken the Grand Jury at its word and now have all the lights on full-strength from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. All of the inmates tell him they want less light.
In the medium-security area, women are eager to talk about the conditions here. They don’t have much criticism for the staff or even, surprisingly, the meals (the men hate theirs). But when it comes to the actual bricks-and-mortar of the 1960s-era jail, they have a lot to say.
“It’s degrading,” says Rita Powers, 33, who’s in jail until February for violating her probation. “I think it’s substandard. It’s really bad.”
Powers, who says she didn’t get to talk to the Grand Jury when its members came through, has penciled a list titled “Issues,” which range from a shoddy shower to a lack of adequate exercise equipment in the yard they are allowed to use for an hour a day, in front of the male inmates.
A jumpsuit, two T-shirts, two bras and two pairs of underwear must last for a week, and the woman say they are pretty grimy by the end of that week.
The vents are visibly clogged with dust, and the inmates say that makes for allergies.
Inmates who don’t want their names in the paper listen intently from the other side of the room as we sit at a metal table that the inmates are convinced contains lead. It was chipped and smelled of metal until, the day before our visit, it was repainted—the same weird, retro-turquoise shade of everything else in the jail.
“They make it look really pretty when people come through,” Powers says. “We had to make sure our beds were made. We had to put on a show.”
As we talk, other women weigh in, including one who’s been incarcerated in several jails around the state, most of which had common areas where inmates could watch television. “I never seen bars before I came here. I never had to go to the bathroom [in full view].”
In the maximum-security area, Georgia Griffith is willing to talk. She’s been confined to a single cell, about 7-by-8 feet, because she wasn’t getting along with her cellmates. Griffith, 27, is serving seven months for grand theft auto. When she gets out of jail this month, she plans to return to her Chico home.
“We have to wear shoes all the time because there’s fungus in all the showers,” she says. The bathroom sinks have chipped paint, and the tile in the showers in is disrepair. “It’s unsanitary,” Griffith says, and even with frequent cleaning, “how nice can we get it?”
Toilets in the group cells are in a corner, behind a dividing curtain that seems no more than 4 feet tall. But the side view in some of them faces the hallway between cells, a major thoroughfare. Inmates in single cells use their toilets looking directly across the hall into the opposite cell. “You’re just sitting there going pee and there’s a guard,” Griffith says, almost nonchalantly. “I just have to go to the bathroom with everyone looking.” (Male guards shout a warning before passing through.)
Griffith says she’d love to do something more productive with her time than read another bad paperback mystery. “I’ve asked for my GED [high-school equivalency] stuff many, many times,” she says. The only thing anywhere near rehabilitation that’s offered is when people from Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous come through from time to time. At least in prison, she says, they have classes and much more than an hour a day outdoors.
“This is straight punishment,” Griffith says.
But more than the head lice outbreaks or what the women call the “ant races” that take place along the walls and even in their beds is the feeling that the inmates are throwaways and the community has no interest in helping them improve themselves to the point where they won’t feel driven to commit the crimes that land them in jail.
"[It’s as if] this is what we deserve,” Powers says bitterly. “It’s certainly not making me feel real good about myself. I hear a lot of people say when they get out they are going to go right back to doing drugs and everything they did to get in here. I don’t see anybody wanting to get any better. They come here and they think, ‘What the hell, we’re pieces of shit.'”
This despair, far more than poor ventilation and plumbing, is the crux of the problem, Persons says. Without encouragement, job skills training, addiction counseling—anything to make the inmates feel there’s hope for them—"these people will be back.”
There are charitable organizations and church groups that want to send people in to help the inmates overcome addiction, learn to read and hear about spiritual hope. But frequently, he says, the often Chico-based volunteers will drive to the Oroville jail only to be turned away because there aren’t enough staff members on duty to supervise their visit.
Former Sheriff Scott Mackenzie, whom Reniff defeated in November 2002, was known to have a hands-off approach with the jail. Where flexibility was possible in the law, Mackenzie went with the most cautious approach, in the name of security. For example, with a handful of court-ordered exceptions, when children come to visit a parent in jail, they are allowed no physical contact with the parent. If a woman were to give birth while incarcerated, the baby would be taken away shortly by Child Protective Services.
“We are so security-conscious and worried,” Persons says, advocating a search program as a deterrent rather than a restrictive approach that punishes the child more than the parent. “We go down to the lowest common denominator.”
Reniff won’t criticize Mackenzie but isn’t sure yet if he’ll do much differently. He said the issue of child-parent contact has to do with security concerns. And there’s no secure area where contact visits could take place. But he has directed jail managers to be more flexible regarding visits from charitable groups.
As for the building and its fixtures, Reniff feels his hands are tied. “The first day I took office I went back there,” says Reniff. “I’ve been here for 30 years, and I’ve seen that jail for 30 years, and there’s only so much we can do with these jails.”
There’s a plan to expand the 12-bed units to fit 16 women, a move that Persons said would violate the consent decree.
“They’ve shown me the plan, and I’ve objected to the plan,” he said. “It’s already the most oppressive, insecure facility that we have. … To put more people in there is outrageous.”
Persons would relieve overcrowding by moving some women to the now-unused, minimum-security E facility. That unit used to be an “honor facility,” says Young, but the minimum-security inmates were “constantly walking away,” and it would cost too much to refurbish and staff it. Even better would be to forgo incarcerating low-level offenders such as marijuana users and those committing minor property crimes in favor of a more-aggressive diversion program, something that’s common in other counties but would be a big step for Butte.
The jail, Reniff says, is “bursting at the seams,” and there’s no money to build a new one. If he could, he’d build the sister to the men’s dorms and pods that went up in 1994. “But you’re talking millions and millions and millions of dollars.”
Persons and most civil-rights advocates are against building new jails or prisons, which they believe is an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” approach to problem people. “Whenever we build a new jail, we fill it in two or three years. I know that we need new jails. I also know that if we build them, they will come.
“I think the jails are being used to deal with a lot of problems we’re not dealing with as a society,” he says. It’s often a lack of literacy and job skills and a horrible upbringing that lead people to choose to commit crimes. They become a convicted class of people, and, “It’s not a group that people feel warm and fuzzy about helping.
“There are a lot of people who make certain mistakes, and some get caught and some don’t,” Persons says. “We shouldn’t throw them away.”
The Grand Jury drew comparisons with the county’s men’s jail.
“We were pretty strong about what we said,” says 2001-02 Grand Jury Foreperson JoAnn Reiswig Loeffler. The men’s jail is fairly modern, but the women’s side “is still your old-fashioned jail of what you would think of 30 to 40 years ago. Like we said, it’s deplorable.”
The Grand Jury urged the Butte County Board of Supervisors to make its own unannounced visit “to compare female and male areas and formulate a plan to correct this inequity.”
Fourth District Supervisor Curt Josiassen, who was chairman of the board when the jury issued its report, said open-meeting laws stand in the way of the full board’s making a surprise visit, but perhaps two members could do so.
Reniff wasn’t in charge of the jail at the time the Grand Jury toured it, but he says, “I don’t think that it was fully explained to the Grand Jury what the housing assignment and classification to each individual inmate has to be.” Of the 512 people in Butte County Jail, 445 are men, so it was natural that they would merit construction of a new facility.
In the isolated monotony that is jail, the women are jealous of the men’s quarters. “The guys get a brand-new one, and we have to live in this crap,” says one woman. In reference to furniture, another inmate complains, “The guys have the new stuff, and we get the leftover shit.”
Across a caged outdoor passageway, the men’s quarters look like Shangri-La in comparison to the women’s, if being able to use a toilet with dividing walls on either side, rather than one standing open to full view, is anyone’s version of paradise.
As we move from the women’s jail to the men’s, Keeler, the jail commander, pockets the huge, metal key he’s been using to open the locks. It looks like something out of an old western. In the men’s jail, doors are opened remotely, when requested over an intercom to the control tower.
The Delta side has six pods, each with a 40-man dorm, and also 16 two-man cells. Twelve officers are on duty jailwide at one time. (The only area the jail is out of compliance in, says Bush, the inspector, is staffing levels.)
The men seem more interested in winning an ally to their individual court cases than talking about conditions. But they bemoan the lack of privacy in jail, along with the food. (They get one hot meal a day, at lunch, and tonight’s dinner is bread with packets of PB&J and two slices of processed cheese, plus Lays chips, an apple and a wafer of some kind.)
One inmate, Brian Kelly, was once jailed in San Mateo County, and there “they were filled with programs,” from religion to AA. “This place is barren, bereft of all this.”
“The consent degree says that you’re not to discriminate against women,” Persons says. The jail must also comply with Title 15, the section of the California Code of Regulations.
“I can only enforce the minimum that the law requires, and unfortunately that’s been a moving target. They keep lowering the standards,” says Persons, disagreeing with Reniff’s assessment that the state standards are high. “That’s the problem with minimum standards. That [the minimum] is what tends to happen.”
As bad as it is, the jail was worse before the consent decree. “It’s night and day to what it used to be,” Persons says.
Legally, the county has to offer inmates only three hours of exercise a week, but the consent decree bought them two more. Instead of the state-mandated one pair of underwear a week, the Butte County women get two. Disabled inmates are accommodated, meals must meet federal and state dietary standards, and the inmates may use a law library. The roof can’t leak, no one can sleep on the floor, the shower must have a non-skid surface and the climate indoors must be appropriately controlled. The jail, unlike most of its counterparts around the state, is accredited by the California Medical Association and must follow its guidelines for care.
Keeler says some of the women’s health concerns are bogus, such as the idea that there’s lead in the furniture or paint. “We wouldn’t use anything like that.” And the inmates weren’t told to paint because the media were coming; it was because the sheriff requested it after his first walk-through.
“I’m very proud of the incarceration division as a whole,” Keeler says. “But I would certainly like to see a better facility.”
As for the conditions of the building, he says, “we follow the law. I can say that they’re all treated fairly and they fall within the law.”
Bush, the jail inspector, says he sympathizes with the county and Sheriff Reniff, who he said was quick to ask what he could do to make the women’s jail better.
When Bush visits Butte County’s women’s jail, the presence of the bars reminds him that this is one of the handful of facilities that didn’t get updated to the pod setup in the late-'80s and early ‘90s. “It’s old, but it’s the best they have, and I don’t knock them. We know that it’s a funding situation.
"[The jail is] going to be there. So, what they need to do is look at it as, ‘We need to remodel it ourselves,'” says Bush, who compared it to someone having a house they want to sell. “Do I leave it as is, or do I put in new fixtures?
“The main problem right now is the fixtures."