It’s often said that jails are schools for criminals. But San Mateo County’s proposed new jail was conceived as a school for baristas and dog washers.
Last week, county supervisors approved a $145 million to $160 million jail design with the expectation that when it opens its doors in Redwood City in October 2014 it will not simply be another cage.
As envisioned by Lt. Debbie Bazan of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department, the new jail will offer GED classes, computer training, résumé-writing workshops, and mental health and drug and alcohol services designed to ease inmates’ transition back into the community.
But in a more novel twist, inmates also will be taught to make lattes in the jail’s proposed kitchen, learn their way around its garden and chicken coops, or become a dog groomer in the facility’s dog-washing station.
Although the building design has yet to be finalized, jail planners have outlined a 12,000-square-foot kitchen and storage facility filled with $1.8 million worth of kitchen equipment.
The facility also will have temperature-controlled day rooms featuring skylights, bookshelves, carpeted floors, inmate telephones, ping-pong tables and soft colors to reduce stress. And instead of individual cells, planners favor two- to eight-person cells united around a communal space, which is both cheaper and better for inmate morale, said Roger Lichtman of Lichtman Associates, a New Jersey-based correctional architecture firm working on the project.
“There’s no bars anymore, it’s all glass and walls,” Lichtman said of the new wave in jail architecture.
While such features might lead some to see the jail as more of a country club, Lichtman said they will help reduce crime.
“The punishment is deprivation of freedom,” Lichtman said. “Once he is there, he’s not there to be further punished, so you might as well spend some seed money so when they go out they’ll have learned something and have a shot at not coming back.”
Sheriff Greg Munks says this approach could help the county reduce the number of inmates who return to incarceration to just 40 percent — well below the state’s 70 percent rate or even the national best of 51 percent.
Supervisor Dave Pine voiced concern earlier this week that funding for the programming the sheriff describes could be cut out of the plan since supervisors nearly slashed basic foster care, substance abuse and mental health services when faced with a $50 million deficit earlier this year.
Burlingame councilmember Michael Brownrigg told the board it should look for creative funding solutions such as only paying local nonprofits for work with inmates if they can achieve a genuine reduction in recidivism.
While reducing recidivism was foremost among the goals Munks articulated in support of the jail, critics say work in that area is long overdue.
Last week, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, an Oakland-based advocacy group seeking to “curb” prison spending, gave San Mateo County a failing grade for its response helping prisoners re-enter society.
Features of the proposed new San Mateo County Jail