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March 31, 2008 - Santa Maria Times (CA)

OpEd: Looking At Negatives Of A N. County Jail

By Gary Murray

It isn't always easy to see the long-range wisdom in the actions of our county supervisors, but this time I am simply amazed at the actions recently taken for a North County detention center.

Apparently, no one has a clue how to cover the full construction costs -- let alone the ongoing costs -- of a large, modern jail, but we hurry now to build it anyway. To what benefit?

If I understand this correctly, we are about to engage in a questionable use of legal maneuvers to grab a working piece of private property so we can apply to a cash-strapped state for a grant we know will cover only part of the initial costs, and none of the ever-increasing ongoing operating costs. And we are doing this so we can get a 500-bed release center that will be rotating prisoners into our city.

Who thinks this stuff up? Hint: It was probably not the teachers who just got pink slips due to lack of education funds.

History shows us that under-funded public projects are often paid for with increased property taxes and increased service costs. Big jails are very bright, very loud and bring an unwelcome increase in traffic. Despite the clamor from the sheriff about the need for a new detention center, there is little apparent benefit for Santa Maria citizens, and I believe our on-going quality of life would be negatively affected by this project.

A bit of research shows that an 800-bed jail facility would, of necessity, be so bright that it would be the brightest feature in the valley, very visible from Highway 101. Kiss the night sky goodbye, if this is built. You probably wouldn't be able to see the stars because of the light pollution.

Did you know jails and prison rehab/release centers are also loud? Loudspeakers, bells and alarms would likely change the quiet character of this valley forever.

In addition, the traffic from official vehicles to daily visitors would burden local roads and add to the increasingly poor air quality in town.

And has anyone asked how much ground water an 800-bed, brightly fenced detention center would use?

Is there future facility expansion built into this plan? Where is the benefit to Santa Maria?

Perhaps the benefit is in the release facility itself -- 500 beds specifically for prisoners about to be released back into society. Officials say 500 beds, but no mention of how many times per year those beds are rotated out. Will it be once per year, or up to four times per year? It is easy to se that 500 plus prisoners released per year into our city is not going to improve the quality of life here.

Given the recidivism in prisoner populations, it is not hard to imagine our local crime rates soaring, as parolees are released onto our streets.

Again, where is the benefit for Santa Maria?

What county supervisors appear to have approved is more light pollution, noise pollution, traffic congestion, under-funded construction costs, unfunded operating costs, the potential for unknown environmental snags, and the real possibility of increased crime in our city. This should be stopped before going any further.

A story in this newspaper stated that our nation has more people in prison than any other industrialized country, and another article a few weeks ago said that up to 80-85 percent of prisoners are in jail for drug charges.

Apparently we have filled the jails with the drug war now, but if you look around, you see that drugs are still everywhere. Perhaps we should rethink that strategy.

Maybe we should take the money we throw at prisons and fund more prevention programs and treatment centers. Prisons apparently don't work to stop the problems, and building one here certainly will not improve anything.

Gary Murray is a Santa Maria resident.

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