Tensions high at crowded jailhouse

May 12, 2003 11:00 pm

By AMY LINDBLOM

In the Calaveras County Jail, they do the inmate shuffle.

The jail is over capacity, and there's no way — as it stands now — that it could ever hold the number of people sent there by courts and law enforcement.

Exceeding capacity is against the law.

But the jail deputies have made juggling space an art.

"We can have a maximum of 65 inmates in the jail, per court order," said Capt. Steve Mathews, jail commander. "But our average daily population is over 70, and our jail was built to hold 45.

"We spend four hours a day trying to figure out how to house inmates and iron out who needs to stay and who gets to go — the inmate shuffle."

The jail regularly houses 56 men and nine women in five wings of a concrete-and-steel building erected in 1963, when the county's population was about 11,000 people.

Today, with more than 41,000 people living in the county, the jail is proportionally too small to hold the number of people who are accused or convicted and sentenced.

Over the years, more beds have been added to the facility, but housing all inmates is impossible, Mathews said. Jail deputies regularly let people out early, and some are never incarcerated at all.

Crowds and stress

"There is no question the stress level is high," Sgt. Chad Roots said. "I have to move guys around all the time when problems arise. Sometimes they just can't stand to be next to a guy anymore, and we don't want to have fights."

But equally important is the stress level for employees who guard and feed the inmates, said Calaveras County Sheriff Dennis Downum.

"The inmates are here for maybe a year at the most, but our employees are basically here for a life sentence. They have to work here in these crowded conditions day in and day out. It does not make for a happy employee."

A tour of the aged jail facility reveals a world most people never get to — or want to — experience.