A project to build a new jail that has eluded Tuolumne County for nearly 20 years will officially get underway in the coming weeks.

Elected leaders and county officials donning white hard hats and clutching polished silver shovels turned the first mounds of dirt on Tuesday at a groundbreaking ceremony for what will be the largest single project the county has undertaken in its 168-year history.

“I know we all look forward to being here again in 19 months to open the new Sheriff J.H. ‘Jack’ Dambacher Detention Center,” said District 4 Supervisor John Gray, who gave the opening remarks as this year’s chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

Gray recapped the journey to reach Tuesday’s milestone that began with a presentation to the board in 1999 by former Sheriff Dick Nutting outlining the need for a new jail.

The proposal later grew into a larger complex that would include a new jail, courthouse and the county’s first juvenile hall.

In 2004, then-Assistant County Administrator Craig Pedro prepared a study looking at potential sites for what would be called the Law and Justice Center that narrowed down to 48 acres of ranchland owned by the Gardella family off Old Wards Ferry Road in Sonora.
“I think it’s a pretty nice 48 acres,” Gray said while standing at a podium before a backdrop of vast swaths of rolling green hills stretching westward.

The county spent the next several years conducting an extensive environmental impact report before formally purchasing the land from the Gardellas for more than $4 million in 2009, which generated some controversy because some at the time believed the county paid too much.

Nevertheless, the county began applying for state grants to get the money needed to build the jail. The estimated cost was originally more than $80 million, but the board and county officials worked to narrow the scope and reduce the price by more than half.

The state awarded the county a $20 million grant in January 2014 from more than $6 billion in funding provided by Senate Bill 1022 for financing jail construction projects through lease revenue bonds.

That wasn’t enough for the county to build the jail, so it lobbied for another $13 million grant from Assembly Bill 900 that provided another $1.8 billion in funding for jail construction.

The county received the grant in July 2015 after another county had to give back the money it had received.

“The combining of two legislative sources of funding was unheard of before this,” said Linda Penner, chairwoman of the Board of State and Community Corrections, while giving a brief speech at Tuesday’s ceremony.

After working on the final designs for more than a year, the county officially awarded the contract for construction in November to the Fresno-based Harris Construction Inc.

Deputy County Administrator Maureen Frank, who has worked on the project since its inception in the early 2000s, has said that construction is slated to officially begin in March after all of the subcontractors are selected and approved.

The county’s current jail at 175 Yaney Ave. in Sonora was constructed in 1960, though there were two additions completed in the 1970s and 1990s that expanded the total number of inmates it could hold to 147.

For many years, the Tuolumne County Grand Jury’s annual reports have criticized the conditions at the jail as outdated and overcrowded.

The new roughly 63,000-square-foot jail will house more than 230 inmates and will be designed to more to modern standards. The existing jail poses a safety risk due to the number of narrow winding halls and staircases.

There will also be a bigger laundry room as opposed to the single closet-sized one at the current jail, an expanded kitchen, and more rooms for rehabilitation and educational programs.

“This building will give inmates an opportunity to change their lives,” said Sheriff Jim Mele.

Mele said the new jail will also allow the Sheriff’s Office to expand its prison industries program that has been overseen by John Fisher for nearly three years. In that time, 256 inmates have participated in the program and 54 of those have re-offended, a success rate of nearly 80 percent.

The new jail is named after John Henry “Jack” Dambacher, whom Mele referred to as a great man.

Dambacher was longest serving sheriff in county history from 1922 to 1946. He served through prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II.

Dambacher’s grandson, Gary Dambacher, talked about his grandfather’s career and how he was known throughout town as “The Black Hat” because of his iconic headwear.

“The jail here is being named after a legend,” Gary Dambacher said.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.