.County Expands Inmate Education, Re-Entry Programs at Rountree Jail

On a stroll through a quiet, fenced yard in Watsonville with a basketball court and a garden, 54-year-old Scott Lane cranes his bald head to get a better look at a towering sunflower.

“This one’s mine,” Lane says, smiling and crossing his sun-beaten arms. “The biggest one, of course.”

At his feet, a leafy basil plant spills out from a neatly groomed raised bed. There’s another herb in there, too, but he can’t remember the name. “Epazote,” says Angel Valdez, a 44-year-old neighbor from Los Angeles. Lane shrugs. “I use them for my soups,” he says.

Lane and Valdez aren’t your average Central Coast gardeners. They’re inmates at Santa Cruz County’s new Rountree Rehabilitation and Reentry Facility. The 64-bed minimum-security jail, located on the same woodsy property near the coast as the county’s medium-security Rountree jail, accepted its first residents in July after two years of construction funded by $24 million from the state.

County inmates must apply to transfer to the new facility, and individuals incarcerated for most serious violent and sexual crimes are ineligible. As of October, 27 people had moved in and committed to 30 hours a week of classes in exchange for privileges like no-glass weekend visits with family. It’s a new variation in what county officials say are ongoing efforts to adapt to the social and economic challenges facing former inmates, especially with costs of living and competition for stable jobs increasing on the Central Coast.

“Usually when people are arrested, it’s out of sight, out of mind,” says Cynthia Chase, the inmate programs manager for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and an outgoing Santa Cruz city councilmember. “We need to do things like this.”

The Rountree expansion also reflects bigger debates about the future of criminal justice. From coast to coast, prison reform activists have escalated calls in recent years for changes to long-accepted norms like cash bail and low-wage inmate labor. In California, reducing recidivism has become a bigger focus since the state’s 2011 “realignment” under AB 109 to ease prison overcrowding by shifting some inmates to local supervision. From 2012-2016, around 775 inmates subject to AB 109 passed through Santa Cruz County facilities or oversight, prompting community groups and law enforcement to roll out new support services, according to a Santa Cruz County Probation Department report from last year.

“The old models simply do not work,” a Santa Cruz County Grand Jury report concluded in June of 2017, and also alluded to various complicating factors. “More and more, mental health and criminal behaviors have become intertwined.”

For inmates like Valdez, a father of three who has spent 30 years in and out of institutions after past ties to gangs, the question is whether this time around will be different.

“I lost everything coming in here,” he said. “I have to restart everything.”

Starting Over

The new Rountree facility is full of examples—big and small—of things you wouldn’t see at your average jail. For starters, there are the hefty garden shovels, saws for construction class, thumbtacks for photos and locked bins under bunks that would usually count as contraband.

“Any other place, officers would be trippin’,” Valdez says. Here, inmates sign rules of conduct when they enter the facility and understand that there is “zero tolerance” for causing disturbances or skipping classes, he says.

Though Chase has seen contraband smuggled in diapers and other creative vessels at different facilities, she says there haven’t been any notable incidents at the new jail. She highlights research on drastically reduced government spending and declining recidivism linked to education to explain her lack of surprise.

“It’s not rocket science,” she says. “When you give people a space and an opportunity to do well, they will.”

Classes are taught in both English and Spanish in rooms with freshly painted gray walls, big windows and posters of geometry formulas. Core classes focus on the region’s biggest industries, like agriculture, construction and hospitality, but there are also electives on poetry, ethics and other topics taught by outside providers such as UCSC. The most popular? “The class that they request the most is parenting,” Chase says. “Always.”  

The jail’s 64 bunks span two floors in a big, open room with linoleum floors and painted cinder block dividers that conjure a rec center locker room. Though keeping track of time is often something to be avoided at other jails, each bunk also has an alarm clock to help inmates get back on a daytime work or school schedule.

“We’re going from stagnant, doing nothing, to 30 hours of class a week,” says Valdez, who is wearing not a court-ordered jumpsuit, but a uniform of blue jeans and a gray, short-sleeve button-down shirt. “That’s like a college student.”

Inmates also aren’t the only ones who must adapt on the fly to changing daily routines.

“This is a huge adjustment, not only for the inmates, but also the staff,” says Sergeant Karen Wells.

The county’s Department of Corrections is recruiting for about 20 open positions, she says, but hiring and training guards often poached by surrounding counties is already a challenge. In addition to Rountree, Santa Cruz County is home to the Water Street Maximum Security Jail (Main Jail), Felton’s Juvenile Hall Detention Center, and the Blaine Street Women’s Minimum Security Facility.

Officials have downplayed the added beds at Rountree, instead emphasizing on-site education and social services. Still, the entire system may benefit from increased capacity. County inspections from as recently as February state that the Main Jail was forced to put bunks in common rooms to meet demand.

For Chase, the work underway at Rountree is a logical next step for programs the county has developed over time. The Gemma Program, for example, offers rehabilitation-oriented classes while incarcerated, followed by transitional housing for women.

At Rountree, perhaps the most difficult dynamic to get right, Chase says, is timing. Since the facility offers several certificate or diploma programs, the idea is to focus on building positive momentum for inmates who are relatively close to release, but who still have enough time to complete programs that administrators hope will help secure jobs after the fact.

Both Lane and Valdez, though, are slated to serve additional time in prison after Rountree.

“We’re not just here because we want to get time off. We’re engaged,” says Lane, who is considering parlaying his newfound interest in garden-fresh ingredients into a career in hospitality.

For now, he’ll settle for the immediate perks.

“My son comes every week, and I get to hold him,” Lane says. “That’s the most important thing to me.”


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