Above: The Vista Detention Facility is one of seven correctional facilities operated by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
REGION — The San Diego County Grand Jury has published a new annual report concluding that subpar conditions exist at the Vista Detention Facility.
The report, which was published on May 28, says that the facility has a design including “little or no outside area where the sky is visible” and a “lack of adequate natural sunlight and/or outdoor recreation.”
Built in 1978 and the county’s oldest jail, the Grand Jury recommends against incarcerating prisoners in Vista for over a year due to those conditions.
“This deficiency has been noted in prior San Diego County Grand Jury Reports and has yet to be adequately addressed,” wrote the Grand Jury. “Older facilities could be used for booking, holding inmates incarcerated for shorter terms and for housing during specific rehabilitation programs.”
The Grand Jury is a regional investigative body is comprised of San Diego County residents nominated by Superior Court judges and serve a single-year term.
Last year, the Grand Jury noted what it saw as a lack of sunlight and outdoor recreation space at the Vista jail and other facilities, but the San Diego Sheriff’s Department saw things differently.
“The Sheriff’s Department disagrees wholly with this finding,” it wrote in response to last year’s findings. “Additionally, all of the facilities have installed exercise equipment appropriate for those respective housing units that can accommodate equipment.”
In response to this year’s report, the Sheriff’s Department — which administers county jails — said that it still believes the Vista jail meets basic standards.
“All of the recreation yards at the Vista Detention Facility have an open ceiling enabling all inmates to see the sky and be in the fresh air whenever they choose to go to the recreation yard,” said Lt. Justin White, the media relations director for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
Sean Davis, who lives in Escondido, spent time incarcerated at the Vista jail. He called its upkeep “run down.”
The courtyard in question, Davis said, is about the size of half a basketball court, which he said is too small for the number of individuals who use it during break times.
“I mean, it’s jail. The facility is old. A lot of their toilets aren’t running correctly and they’ve got gnats coming out of the plumbing and everything,” said Davis. “If you’re in a pod, there’s maybe six toilets for over 200 guys and probably only four of them work and you’ve got three showerheads for over 200 guys in one unit.”
San Diego County Board of Supervisors member Jim Desmond, who represents District 5 — within which sits the Vista jail — gave a more positive outlook of the conditions at the Vista jail.
“It’s no secret that our jails are the largest behavioral health provider in the county and they are getting better all the time in responding to the needs of inmates,” said Desmond. “I was recently at the Vista jail where I toured the nationally recognized Veterans Moving Forward program. I was extremely impressed with the care and resources available to the VMF inmates and recently asked the Board of Supervisors to enhance job training skills and add additional services for inmates once they are released.”
But Peter Liss, a Vista-based criminal defense attorney and former public defender, said he believes the Grand Jury report misses out on analyzing what he sees as broader problems within the state’s network of prisons and jails.
“There are two issues. We incarcerate too many people and we’re unwilling to pay for the costs of incarceration that constitutionally requires to treat inmates in a safe and humane manner,” said Liss. “The grand jury report is really a Band-Aid that doesn’t really address the real issue, which is that the United States incarcerates more people than any western democracy. Having a jail with more open space and air really doesn’t fundamentally change the problem.”
Liss does not believe this trend will end anytime soon. And so he called for the state to give more funding towards its prisons and jails.
“If you’re going to incarcerate the number of people that you do, you have to be willing to spend the money,” he said. “Everyone knows it’s expensive to incarcerate somebody. And then you add to it that the Grand Jury says that one-third of the prisoners have mental health problems, which then requires medical professionals and so now you have all these people who are incarcerated on top of the costs of having medical and psychological care.”
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.