Part Ten: Time in jail hits hard when faced with reality

The oddity of it was that Jed Logan and I had talked about the
ebb and flow of the Hollister Citizens Police Academy class
schedule on our way back from lunch on Wednesday.
The oddity of it was that Jed Logan and I had talked about the ebb and flow of the Hollister Citizens Police Academy class schedule on our way back from lunch on Wednesday.

The previous week’s meeting of the seventh Academy class had put us on the department’s shooting range for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fire the weapons used by HPD officers.

With two more weeks before graduation, it was as if a film director had placed the climactic scene too early in the movie.

“How can they top that?” I said to Jed. “We go out and shoot guns, and the next two weeks are like ‘Yeah, OK …'”

Wrong.

The Academy held another climax for its students: we went to jail.

We did not pass “Go,” nor did we collect $200. But for the second consecutive week, our eyes were opened – as were our minds.

As we walked to the entrance of the San Benito County Jail on Flynn Road, one could almost hear Rod Serling intoning a “Twilight Zone” caveat from somewhere inside the night sky: “The land that lies between science and superstition, between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. You will find the bizarre, but the believable; the different, the shocking that is yet understandable. Its tales must be shown; they cannot be told. And each carries with it its own special surprise.”

Surprise, indeed. Hearing the word “jail” might conjure up images of Mayberry’s two iron-barred cells, nervously sentried by Deputy Barney Fife, or grizzled hobo types laying on moth-eaten mattresses atop pull-down cots blowing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” on a harmonica.

Times have changed.

Monterey County Sheriff’s Deputy Valerie Masey led our tour of the 9-year-old jail, which provides an impression of “modern” merely by a walk down a hall. The brick walls are painted in calming shades of light green and the facility smells not of alcohol, urine and tobacco, as one might expect, but of warm-scented disinfectant.

Further inspection revealed that Masey, who became a jail officer when the county facility was on the 300 block of Fifth St., is armed only with pepper spray. Weapons are forbidden on the premises, even by police; HPD Capt. Bob Brooks locked his 9-millimeter pistol in the trunk of his patrol car before escorting us inside.

The lack of firepower was comforting since there was, seemingly, no need for it – little in the way of human noise, scarcely any activity at all.

It seemed more like a motel than a jail. Until we saw the accommodations. In one wing were holding cells, two of them about 8-by-8 feet with beige walls and a grated drain in the center of the floor. No bars, no clanging door, nothing even to sit on – or from which to hang oneself.

These cells are for inmates under suicide watch, and they’re checked every 15 minutes through the triple-paned window.

Two larger cells sport a combination sink/toilet made of stainless steel. These are called “sobering cells” in preference to the politically incorrect “drunk tank.”

Adjacent to these is the booking area and the door through which all inmates pass. It has no welcome mat.

At about 8:30 p.m. all is quiet. In a few hours, that will change.

“Our primary source of work is in this room,” Masey said. “It gets very frustrating, trying to talk on the phone with someone going ‘Bam, bam, bam – let me out, let me out.’ And they do it for 12 hours straight.”

Windows take a beating. Masey said three have been replaced in the last year.

“Usually, you get a whole group of guys in here,” Masey said, indicating the sobering cell, “and everybody takes a little nap – if they’re nice.”

If not, they pound windows and rattle doors until someone else yells “Shut up!”

Once, Masey said, a holding cell inmate washed his clothes in the toilet and hung them on the ceiling fire sprinkler to dry. It seemed harmless, even creative – until he jumped up to get his dry clothes and pulled the pin on the fire sprinkler, setting it off and flooding the cell.

“You almost have to laugh sometimes,” Masey said.

But not often. Many who come into the booking area are loaded on alcohol or drugs, or both, and they’re usually not in very good shape.

“At times, it’s very sad to see people come in in that condition,” Masey said. “Some of them haven’t bathed, some of them haven’t eaten.

Then we deal with their families, too; they come to visit. Kids say ‘Why do you have my mom here? Why do you have my dad here?’ There are kids out in the lobby saying ‘I hate cops.’ That’s already their impression. It’s tough to deal with. It’s sad to see families so emotionally hurt by problems with inmates.”

We passed the well-equipped medical station and the library that looks to have perhaps a hundred books – and where nightly religious services and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held – before going through a door that must be unlocked from the central control room.

Now it gets real

We’re in the Housing Unit. Now it gets real.

This, the main part of the jail, is wheel-shaped, with six “pods” surrounding the central control room. ‘A’ Pod is for serious criminals and is the only one of the four men’s units with individual cells – 16 of them on two floors. Each has a toilet, sink and a small table to write on.

Pods ‘B’ through ‘D’ have bunk beds, dormitory-style, and all have a commons area with stainless steel tables and a single shower.

Televisions are fixed to the walls, out of arm’s reach; channels are changed from the central control room.

There are bulletin boards in each, on which are posted release dates, schedules of church services, addresses and phone numbers to drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers and notices of any changes in jail procedure. There are also telephones, made of stainless steel and designed so that only collect calls are possible. The phones get a lot of use until the 11:30 p.m. weekday lights-out (2 a.m. on weekends).

‘C’ pod is for low-level criminals, some awaiting sentence for misdemeanors. Some are on a work-furlough program and pay $84 per month to be driven to their day jobs, returning to the jail in the evening.

‘D’ pod is the loneliest. It’s the protective custody unit, and as we passed we could see a single inmate busying himself with a broom.

“He’s a gang dropout with half a lung,” Masey explained. “They’d (other gang members) love to puncture his other lung.”

Until recently, this unit was the temporary home of Luis Cabral, who was convicted of a February 1999 kidnapping and rape on the outskirts of Hollister and sentenced to 135 years in prison.

“He stayed in his room,” Masey said. “He came out just to shower.”

Through another door unlocked from the central control room is the women’s unit – two smaller pods, the result of a lack of foresight of the climbing female crime rate.

Only one inmate is in ‘E’ Pod, but she earned notoriety last month for allegedly beating her 2-year-old stepdaughter to death.

Masey explained that Adriana Bedolla is celled alone because of the status of her crime; she faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.

“We have to make sure she’s not in with somebody who ran a red light,” Masey said.

Ten women currently live in ‘F’ Pod – the smallest of the six – but only one was present during our tour. The other nine, Masey said, were at church services in the library.

“We had 12 (in ‘F’ Pod) earlier in the week,” Masey said. “It’s 19-by-14 (feet) – ‘B’ Pod is four times that size.”

The women’s units also don’t have windows facing outside, which the men’s do. The only source of sunlight in ‘E’ and ‘F’ pods are skylights.

Still, the female inmates enjoy some conveniences their male counterparts don’t: a washer and dryer and a microwave oven. During winter months, the women toss some clothes in the dryer just for the heat.

For all its shortcomings, the jail is a great improvement over the old Fifth Street facility.

“When we moved out here from the old downtown jail, it was very hard for us to get used to this as officers,” Masey said. “We were saying, ‘This isn’t a jail, this is Disneyland.'”

Inmates, male and female, also eat well. State Department of Corrections standards require that they have two hot meals per day, plus milk and vegetables. Burgers and fries are common, but they’re not a menu staple.

Inmates with special dietary needs, such as diabetics, are fed accordingly. And holiday meals are sumptuous – good news for the officers, who eat the same food as the inmates.

“I’ve been here 10 years,” said Masey, who has two daughters, ages 7 and 13, “and nine of those years I’ve had Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner here.”

The nerve center

In the hub of the Housing Unit, deputy Elio Ruedas sits at a large console of square, multi-colored buttons. Atop the console is a microphone through which Ruedas can admonish inmates to stop horseplay or rougher stuff and also respond to requests from them – for extra blankets, changing the TV channel, soap, toilet paper … the list is endless.

“When I started up here,” Ruedas said, “It was like when you’d ask your mom if you could do something and she’d say ‘No – because I said so.’ I give them the exact same language.”

Above the console is a monitor that gives Ruedas views of four exterior areas of the facility. It’s connected to a VCR in case video is needed for evidence. A computer storing an inmate database is to the left and surrounding the elevated room are windows, giving Ruedas a view into every pod.

But the heart of the small room is the console, which controls everything in the jail from doors to lights to TVs.

The central control room is the jail’s nerve center.

“It gets hectic in here – especially during daytime hours,” Masey said.

“It’s horrible – horrible. It’s like a torture chamber.”

Before inmates begin to wind down at night, the central control room is a hornet’s nest of ringing phones, constant requests and badgering from inmates and calls to open or close doors. When it gets particularly bad – as it did on the afternoon of Feb. 10 when a riot broke out – unarmed officers might use the ladder to the roof escape hatch.

But in more placid times, it’s merely a hectic day.

“At 11:30 at night, I get on the intercom and announce lights out,” Ruedas said. “Hopefully, they all go to sleep.”

And hopefully, they all do their time, get out – and never come back.

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