In California, County Jails Face Bigger Load

From The New York Times:

FRESNO, Calif. — Standing on the footsteps of the Fresno County Jail, where he had just been released one recent afternoon, Juan Diaz rated the food inside a 2. The state prison at Coalinga, where he served three years on a weapons conviction, earned a 10.

Battle-hardened young men like Mr. Diaz, 33 — who is a member of the Bulldogs, the largest Hispanic gang in California’s Central Valley, and who spent the night in jail for missing a court date on charges of possessing a stolen car and methamphetamine — used to deride the downtown Fresno jail as “Club Snoopy.”

Spending years in jail instead of prison is an increasing possibility now, as California carries out the most far-reaching overhaul of its criminal justice system in decades. And that idea fills Mr. Diaz with dread.

“I’d go insane,” he said. “I would probably hang myself, seriously. I would probably do something stupid.”

Built for stays shorter than one year, the jail does not offer the kind of activities, work programs and amenities found in most prisons. “You’re stuck in a little cell,” Mr. Diaz said, while prisons with outdoor space provide plenty of “yard time.” Soup costs $1 here, compared with 30 cents at the canteen at Coalinga, which Mr. Diaz said he left in 2005. “My homie just got out a couple of months ago,” he said, “and the canteen went up only, like, 3 cents, 4 cents.”

Ordered by the United States Supreme Court to reduce severe overcrowding in its prisons, California began redirecting low-level offenders to local jails last October in a shift called realignment. Its prison population, the nation’s largest, has since fallen by more than 16 percent to 120,000 from 144,000; it must be reduced to 110,000 by next June.

Counties with already tight budgets are scrambling to house the influx of newcomers in facilities that were never designed to accommodate inmates serving long sentences, like a man who began serving 15 years for fraud recently in the Fresno jail.

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