When you think of a jail, what comes to mind? Bars. A cell without windows. Agitated prisoners. Maybe I watch too much TV.
But when you go to the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, be prepared for something different. This is a model jail where inmates can get a high school diploma or learn a trade. It’s also overcrowded, and its operations are threatened.
“So before you go outside to the main part of the jail, I would like you to suspend your assumptions of what a jail normally looks like from what the media has shown you,” said Captain Jim Grottkau, who runs this jail for the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department. “As you go out here, you’re going to see something that looks like a beautiful campus, with flowers and a quad and all those things you expect to see over at your college.”
Grottkau opened the door and we walked outside to a beautiful courtyard. There were rose bushes and manicured lawns. Inmates in orange and green uniforms strolled freely around the jail’s 25 acres.
Grottkau and Assistant Sheriff Matt Schuler told me that the inmates landscaped everything. This is one program of many inside the jail to help the inmates learn a trade while they are here.
“This is just one of the opportunities that we have for them to be involved and spend their time constructively while they’re in custody,” Schuler said. “Give them a basis for some kind of career when they get out of custody.”
The West County Detention Facility opened about twenty years ago to house Contra Costa’s non-violent criminals. Inmates have a key to their cells and come and go when they want, except when officers are counting the prisoners. The cells look more like college dorm rooms. They are built around a lobby where inmates can hang out and watch TV. Still, the cells are sparse.
“Everyone has a window. Everyone has a desk. There’s usually two chairs in most rooms,” Grottkau said. “It’s not a huge room. But it’s certainly not uncomfortable either.”
Many of the inmates go to class by day. The jail has its own education system offering classes like English as a second language, computer skills, anger management and alcoholics anonymous.
“We have actual teachers, credentialed teachers, we have teacher’s aids, we have a principal that’s here on site,” said Patty Grant, director of Inmate Services. “So it’s as good of a school as you’re going to find anywhere.”
Here’s the other thing about the West County Detention Facility. It’s peaceful. When the classes got out, the inmates filed in procession out of the doors. Their hands are folded behind their backs and some hold pink and yellow folders.
For this to work, there’s one thing that’s crucial: Everyone has to get along. And it’s up to the jail’s classification unit to screen all of the inmates, said Lieutenant Scott Hagard, who is the facilities commander.
“Because only certain people can be here, they have to be very careful about making sure that we don’t mix gangs and making sure that we have a certain type of people, a certain classification of crime, to where they can get along,” Hagard said.
The inmates who don’t fit into West County are sent to the Martinez Detention Facility. Captain Jeff Nelson oversees the Martinez jail. As he puts it, West County was designed to be different.
“Martinez is the hardened facility,” Nelson said. “It’s built to be our high security facility.”
With California transferring responsibility for its low-level felons to the county, Contra Costa is facing problems of overcrowding. Martinez is filling up. But Schuler says the solution isn’t easy.
“You’re going to regularly run across at the Martinez Detention Facility, one cell and the next cell to them, those two don’t get along with each other,” Schuler said. “This facility won’t work this way. This is all, everyone has to get along with each other.”
Sheriff David Livingston wants to expand the West County jail. The plan is to build an enclosed section with separate classrooms and housing. That way prisoners from rival gangs can be housed in West County.
But after facing widespread opposition from leaders and residents in Richmond, who want to see state funds invested in programs that will rehabilitate prisoners coming home from jail, the Sheriff decided to postpone his plans.
“We’re not trying to add any beds to add more population,” Schuler said. “We’re just trying to shift an existing group of inmates from one facility to another so that they can be afforded those programs.”
Contra Costa officials and residents have spent hours in meetings over the last year to improve the jails and programs for prisoners. The sheriff is involved and he is listening. But he is still hoping to earmark money for the jail expansion at a meeting in December.
“We’re pushing the boundaries of what this facility was designed to be,” Schuler said. “It still works for us. The systems are in place to where I think we’re doing a very good job with that. But with the strain on our facilities, we’re pushing the limits every day.”