Jail visitor's policy comes under fire by some
By BEVERLY BARELA
August 10, 2017
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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