Santa Ana not sure what to do with its state-of-the-art, nearly empty 512-bed jail

It doesn’t have the gritty look you’d expect of a 20-year-old jail that has housed thousands of accused murderers, robbers, gang members and immigrants detained by federal authorities.

Two-person dorm-style cells remain clean and tidy, with dark blue tables, mint green bunk beds and doors with glass windows rather than cage-like metal bars. There is clean, blue and beige carpet to muffle ambient noise and large areas where inmates can mingle, watch TV, play board games or hang out in a recreation yard.

Santa Ana’s city jail, a state-of-the art design attached to a new police headquarters at the tail end of a 1980s and 1990s crime wave that boosted demand for inmate beds, has aged well.

But the four-story facility now stands as a symbol of changing times in incarceration: it’s nearly two-thirds empty, with an uncertain future and millions in remaining construction debt.

A number of factors have helped drain away inmates. Crime rates are lower today than when the jail opened; the state is working to cut the number of non-violent criminals it incarcerates. And, most recently, Santa Ana declared itself a sanctuary city, moving to undo a roughly $11-million-a-year contract to house undocumented detainees for federal immigration agencies.

“Obviously, it’s not nearly as busy as it used to be,” said Santa Ana Jail administrator Christina Holland, as she walked by vacant jail visiting rooms on a recent weekday.

In addition to what was hailed as a cutting-edge concept for jail management, the 512-bed facility was characterized as a model of creative fiscal management. The city could market lockup space it didn’t need to other agencies and help pay off Santa Ana’s portion of borrowing for the $107.4-million construction cost of both the jail and police headquarters.

However, the inmate population hasn’t come close to the facility’s capacity for four years, Holland said. That’s partly because those arrested in Santa Ana for felony offenses are taken to county jail, operated by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and increasingly misdemeanor offenders are simply booked and released at the city jail.

With fewer inmates, jail staff also has been reduced. “There simply isn’t a need because the population has dropped,” Holland said.

But the jail facility still costs close to $16 million a year to operate and maintain, and it only generates $4.8 million in revenue, Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said.

A new low was reached last month with the removal of the last 10 detainees – all transgender women – held in Santa Ana on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As of Tuesday’s count, only five of eight housing modules—holding 179 arestees held under contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Bureau of Prisons – are still operating, plus two dormitory units housing pay-to-stay inmates and others that must be segregated.

The sharply divided City Council is wrestling over the wisdom of past decisions, what comes next, and how to reduce the strain the jail’s ongoing costs imposes on residents and the city budget.

The city sold $80 million in bonds to help finance the jail and police headquarters, and will continue to incur $3 million annual debt expenses for the jail—one-third of the $9 million total in debt payments for the entire building—through 2024. Council members are aware the jail operation is contributing to a projected structural deficit of $14.4 million for fiscal year 2017-18 and $19.5 million for the following year, according to city staff.

A formal study of potential future uses of the jail is due to be completed in August.

“I don’t think at the start there was even an intention to convert it into anything other than a jail,” Holland said. “But it’s a different world today.”

Council member suggestions have included: creating a mental health center, the funding for which isn’t clear; cutting operating costs in half by converting the jail into a smaller-scale booking facility; or ramping up efforts to grow revenue by securing new contracts to house inmates for outside agencies.

Late Tuesday, June 6, council members were scheduled to consider a staff recommendation to convert part of the jail to a short-term holding facility in the 2017-18 fiscal year. But they decided to continue the item for two weeks.

“By transitioning to a holding facility, two of the four floors at the jail would become available for the city’s consultant to provide various use options,” Santa Ana spokeswoman Alma Flores said.

Councilman Jose Solorio said he’s optimistic “there might be additional federal or state departments that might have an interest in our facility to mitigate the losses to the city jail budget and our general fund.

“I think we need to keep all options on the table.”

But Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez and Councilman David Benavides have said the city erred in building the jail. Closing part of the jail and using the remainder for a booking operation is probably the better, more financially sustainable option, they have argued.

“Clearly what we’re seeing now in retrospect is that we shouldn’t have gone into the jail business,” said Benavides, who was part of the council majority that advocated for phasing out the federal ICE contract.

When the jail and police headquarters were unveiled in January 1997, top Santa Ana officials said it represented a smart investment in public safety and a commitment to the peace of mind for residents. At the time, violent crime rates were high. Just a few years earlier, the city hit a peak of nearly 90 homicides.

“This is, I believe, the best possible investment we could make as a community to ensure our long-term future,” Mayor Miguel Pulido said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “The beauty of this is that we did it right.”

In the two decades since, crime has fallen—there were less than 25 homicides last year—along with the inmate population.

The political makeup of the City Council also has shifted.

In May 2016, the council majority voted to phase out the federal ICE contract that financially covered close to 40 percent of the jail’s beds. On the way out of office after an election setback, members of that same majority voted late last year to declare Santa Ana the first sanctuary city in Orange County. They also put federal immigration officials on notice that the city was reducing the jail beds available to ICE. In February, ICE notified the city it was terminating its contract.

The current council is split on a number of key issues, including whether to pursue new law enforcement contracts to help fill the jail.

Pulido, who has remained Santa Ana mayor, hasn’t wavered from the decisions he and his then-colleagues made two decades ago. The city should try to increase the inmate population, including restarting talks with federal immigration officials about housing undocumented detainees, he said.

“When you go back look at some of those early years and look at the (millions) … that used to go into the general fund, why?” he said. “Because we had 500 beds” occupied, he added. “Take 500 beds, multiply times $80 a day, whatever number you want. When you have that many beds and they’re full, then everything works.”

Pulido said he believes there’s potential to put the jail back in the black—housing inmates.

“We can try. We won’t know until we try,” he said, before acknowledging the political challenge for council members. “We’re deadlocked.”

Whether past contracting opportunities with immigration officials can be revived is an open question. To offset the loss of Santa Ana jail beds, ICE recently moved to expand its contract for jail space with Orange County officials.

“Right now, what have we done?” said Pulido. “We said no to ICE, they moved across the street” and they are offering Orange County government what amounts to a multi-million dollar windfall, he said. “Meanwhile, we have empty beds and we’re spending money on a reuse study. It was never intended to be empty – and that’s the real problem.”

But Martinez reiterated that the city should not be in the jail business because “it’s not a core service” for residents.

“I understand a holding facility, but am not sure how we ended up” running a longer-term, full-service jail operation. “That makes no sense when the county jail is next door,” she said. “As for the ICE going across the street, that is a policy decision on the county side” where the sheriff’s department must maintain a much higher-level, more costly jail operation.

The Santa Ana jail doesn’t have that obligation, she said.