County Jail visitor's policy comes under fire by some

August 10, 2017

What changes will be made in the future to a Merced County Sheriff’s Office, Corrections Division policy governing visitation and access to county jail inmates?
This was the topic of a lively discussion during a public informational meeting on Aug. 5 at Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Atwater, organized by community advocate and activist Antoine Hubbard.
It came about after Hubbard approached Sheriff Vern Warnke informally about an issue he had with Policy 10.01 denying visits to jail inmates by some persons with a criminal record.
The policy in question, 10.01(3) on Visitation and Access to Inmates, states in pertinent part:
"3. Persons convicted of a felony, convicted of a drug offense, charged with a violent or sex related crime, or has been arrested in the last five (5) years for any reason will be denied."
At the meeting, Hubbard was a member of a panel, along with Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke, Capt. Greg Sullivan, and Pastor Phil Jenkins of Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church.
As the approximately 20 attendees entered the room, including Capt. Bimley West from the Merced Police Department, County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, and Daryl Davis, President of the local chapter of the NAACP, Hubbard provided them each with a handout, which was a letter from himself to Sheriff Warnke.
The letter quoted Policy 10.01 and then stated, in part:
"My research and direct contact to numerous California sheriff departments visiting policies, parole and probation department, attorneys as well as the citizens of the city/county of Merced California supports the fact that policy 10.01 language needs to be changed without any further delay".
The letter went on to claim, "A large percentage of registered voters have been affected by this policy and have been denied access to visiting family members, friends, children, etc. whose arrest or conviction have been as far back as 40 years or more. Families have been torn apart by this Policy # 10.01(3). The community of Merced CA support base has been broken by the language in this policy."
The letter requested that Sheriff Warnke change the policy to "follow the same guidelines of the surrounding counties of San Diego, San Joaquin, Monterey, Orange County and Monterey [sic] which allows people that have been released from custody for 30 to 90 days and are currently on parole or probation to be allowed to visit their loved one, family members, with the approval of their supervising agency, such as parole or probation officer and the Jail Commander."
During the meeting, Hubbard said, "The community has been complaining. They don’t understand why they can’t visit their loved ones."
He asked if the Sheriff’s Office could rely on the opinion of the potential visitor’s parole or probation supervisor when enforcing 10.01(3) because "who would know that person better than his supervising parole agent or probation officer?"
Although he didn’t promise anything, Capt. Sullivan said, "Probation’s role will be expanding. Everyone’s going in the direction of bail going away. When someone is arrested, Probation is going to have to do some pre-trial assessment."
Both Sheriff Warnke and Captain Sullivan responded to the letter by saying that they are now looking at these visitation requests on a case-by-case basis instead of subjecting them to a blanket denial under 10.01, and that the policy will be reviewed for possible changes when the new jail facility is built and operational.
However, Sheriff Warnke made it clear he isn’t being "mean," but sometimes the answer will still have to be "no".
It is the policy of the Corrections Division to permit visits to jail inmates "under conditions that are consistent with the security of the facility".
Warnke explained, "10.01 has been put in place to protect the inmates and those who run the facility."
He continued, "Our jail is 50 years old. To visit, you have to go into the bowels of the jail where things are happening — smuggling narcotics, weapons brought in, smuggling cell phones in, running a criminal enterprise. We’ve had people committing felonies in jail, homicides, assaults with severe injuries."
He added, "You folks have honorable intentions, but we get lied to on a regular basis."
In June, a jail inmate stabbed another inmate with a 7-inch metal shank, which resulted in injuries so severe that the victim had to be transported to a Modesto hospital. At the time, Capt. Sullivan reportedly said inmates have been known to fashion weapons out of almost anything around, such as pencils and pieces of the wall.
Addressing the letter from Hubbard, Sheriff Warnke said, "I don’t want anyone to construe this as tearing families apart. To put the blame on us for tearing families apart? They have culpability for why they’re in jail."
He added, "You compared us with Monterey and Orange Counties. Those are large, up-to-date facilities."
He continued, "We’re in the process of updating our jail. I hope you understand we are working on it. We are going to be doing it case-by-case. But our facility is so old, so decrepit, literally. That’s why we’re doing the jail remodel."
Sheriff Warnke asked Capt. Sullivan to share the background of the jail remodel.
Capt. Sullivan exclaimed, "We applied for a $40 million grant through SB 846 and got it! The County had to come up with a match of $4.5 million. We’re breaking ground next January. We’re going to rebuild John Latorraca [Correctional Center]. We’re going to have 30 beds for medical/mental health issues and eight programming classrooms. There will be a new booking, intake, kitchen. The dorms will be totally rebuilt. It will be a state-of-the-art facility."
Describing how much easier visitation will be when the new facility is operational in 2021 or sooner, Sullivan said, "We’re going to build a Visitation Center. Visitors can come in the front entrance and won’t have to come in the actual facility. They can do video or in-person visitation. We will be able to offer video visits from home."
He added, "The Board of Supervisors authorized $400,000 for a 256-bed facility so we can close downtown. There’s a spot at John Latorraca, right next door, where we want to build this 256-bed facility. We’re waiting for the architects to give us the final costs, and the Board of Supervisors will then consider it and make the decision."
Capt. Sullivan explained, "We’re in discussion about the policy, about loosening it up. We’re hampered by the current facility. I’ve directed my jail commanders to look at it on a case-by-case basis. If you have a marijuana arrest from 30 years ago, why would we prevent you from coming in? We have a lot of problems with smuggling. I don’t think we’re going to have those problems with the new facility."
He announced, "We will rewrite the policy once we have the new facility. Meanwhile, we’re doing case-by-case."
During a question and answer session, Hubbard asked if they could change the part of the policy denying visits by anyone who has been arrested in the past five years for any reason.
Capt. Sullivan responded, "Give us 30 days to look at it."
He explained, "We check and find out. One time we checked and found out the person wanting visitation was arrested for smuggling into a jail. Do you think we’re going to let someone in who has been arrested and convicted of smuggling into a jail, even if it was 10 years ago?"
Sheriff Warnke said, "I believe in fairness. We’re going to go by fairness and say yes to people who are capable. If we went by blanket, we’d have to say no. It has to do with background and behavior, nothing else. We are working on this because we want to do the right thing all the time."
Although one attendee expressed serious discontent at the meeting, most seemed happy with the outcome.
Supervisor Espinoza said he was pleased and felt it was positive.
Pastor Jenkins cautioned the citizens to "be realistic".
He said, "We need to spend time figuring out how to have a dialogue and a conversation rather than a finger-pointing session."

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