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Santa Cruz County readies newer, bigger jail

Juan Medina with Sierra Detention Systems, cleans tables as they get the area ready for inmates in the minimum security female area at the new $48 million Tony Estrada Law Enforcement Center jail on Feb. 16, 2011 in Nogales, Ariz.  The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department has moved into its new office that also has a detention center. (AP Photo/Arizona Daily Star, Dean Knuth)

Juan Medina with Sierra Detention Systems, cleans tables as they get the area ready for inmates in the minimum security female area at the new $48 million Tony Estrada Law Enforcement Center jail on Feb. 16, 2011 in Nogales, Ariz. A�The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department has moved into its new office that also has a detention center. A� A�(AP Photo/Arizona Daily Star, Dean Knuth)

An almost-dry riverbed, train tracks and less than two miles of roadway are all that separate Santa Cruz County’s old jail from its new one in Nogales.

But the county’s head honcho, for whom the new $48 million law-enforcement center is named, said the difference between the facilities is stark.

Sheriff Tony Estrada said staffers started settling into their offices at the “state-of-the-art” Tony Estrada Law Enforcement Center next to the county courthouse, in early January.

The group that hasn’t moved yet, however, is the one it was built for – the inmates.

Jail Commander Lt. Roberto Morales wouldn’t release the inmate move date for security reasons, but said officials plan to move the prisoners from the old jail sometime in March.

The new jail’s design, technology and location set the 372-bed facility apart from its nearly four-decade-old counterpart, Morales said.

The roughly 100,000-square-foot facility is almost five times as big as the old one and touts a high-tech control center, dozens of flat screen TVs and more than 200 security cameras.

The modern design inside the jail’s 11 pods and two intake cells makes it look more like a Chipotle restaurant than a correctional facility.

On a recent morning as sun poured through a window into one of the pods, reflecting off a brushed steel table and onto the burgundy-colored accent wall, Cpl. Ramon Villela pointed to one of the area’s two flat-screen, 40-inch TVs a�� rewards for inmates who behave well.

“Pretty nice, huh? It’s so big in here, they even look small,” Villela said.

Down on the first floor of the facility, Morales sat in his new office, zoomed one of the security cameras toward a shopping plaza, and a crisp image of the Payless Shoe Source store down the hill popped on screen.

Payless Manager Sandra Corrales, who voted for the half-cent-per-dollar sales-tax increase in 2005 that funded the construction, said even after the inmates move into the jail she’ll feel safe working nearby.

“To me, it looks like it’s going to be very safe, safer than the other one,” Corrales said in Spanish.

Although there weren’t any escapes in recent years, Morales said there were a few incidents of inmate-on-inmate violence sparked by overcrowding and classification issues in the past.

But he said the main reason the new jail is safer is because the inmates won’t be moving around as much.

Instead of being transported by vehicle from the old facility for court appearances, the inmates will now be escorted directly from their cells to the courthouse through a secure corridor.

The new jail also has a video visitation system, which allows inmates to talk to visitors without leaving their cells. Much like in a Skype conversation, the inmates will sit behind a screen in their cell as visitors sit behind another screen in a room on the first floor of the facility.

Morales added that the old facility was not only in a flood plain, but also on the wrong side of the tracks a�� literally.

The train that runs parallel between Grand Avenue and Hohokam Drive often blocked the quickest access to Interstate 19 and sent deputies on a loop-around detour. The new location shortens the response time to communities north of Nogales, such as Rio Rico and Tubac, he said.

But the biggest reason for the move was the overcrowding at the old jail, which was built for 52 inmates in 1974. It housed as many as 120 last year, Morales said.

“We were improvising all the time, to the point where we were outsourcing,” Morales said.

Estrada said he’s heard some locals complain that the new facility is too big. He said he agrees that it is a bit roomy – at least for now.

“This jail is for 15 years from now, so you don’t have to look at building a new jail then.”

Until then, Estrada plans to lease the space to whomever needs it.

The county’s intergovernmental agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service for Arizona, signed in August, reserves 170 beds for low-level offenders, namely immigration-law violators, Morales said.

Jennifer St. John, the county’s administrative services director, said the county expects to make about $300,000 a year from the federal government for housing inmates.

And that’s a good thing for the county – officials planned the sales tax-based funding before the onset of the recession.

In 2005, the county collected about $3.1 million in sales tax, but last year only $2.9 million, St. John said.

Aside from the $2.5 million that comes out of county’s general fund to cover jail operation costs, an extra $2 million from the fund went to help offset the drop in sales-tax revenues last fiscal year, St. John said.

She said another million dollars will probably come out of the fund this year, but she doesn’t anticipate that will continue indefinitely.

“You’ve got to pay a little to get the ultimate goal,” said St. John, who added that the earliest the county could break even is June 2012.

As county officials anticipate the cash flow from housing out-of-towners, the last bunch of jail employees eagerly awaits moving day.

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