Don Rodriguez
Don Rodriguez
Commander, Pitchess Detention Center

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Sunday, August 20, 2006
(Television interview conducted August 7, 2006)

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Time Warner Cable, and hosted by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m. This week's newsmaker is Don Rodriguez, Commander of the Peter J. Pitchess Dentention Center in Castaic and the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: Many Santa Claritans are familiar with you as the former commander of the SCV Sheriff's Station. How long have you been in charge of the jails in Castaic?

Rodriguez: Since April 2005.

Signal: It has been a rather eventful year and a half.

Rodriguez: Yes, it has.

Signal: Tell us about the planned expansion.

Rodriguez: What we're looking at is the creation of women's jail on the old actual ranch property that was torn down several years ago. It will house approximately 1,000 females in barracks, or dorms, where we will house 50 or 60 in each dorm. That will add about 1,000 beds to our existing count.

Signal: Right now, there are four jail facilities in Castaic—

Rodriguez: Yes, there are. One was collapsed; it was the south facility, and it is now fully open, however it does not have a command staff. That's the only reason it is still referred to as a annex of another jail. But the four jails that were there are open.

Signal: They only house men.

Rodriguez: Yes.

Signal: How many?

Rodriguez: Today we have 7,861. The count varies from day to day depending upon the jail population within L.A. County. We could go as high as about 8,500 right now.

Signal: How many inmates are there throughout the county?

Rodriguez: We're running at about 19,000 a day right now. August and September tend to be our highest months. We'll probably go up to around 20,000 inmates in custody by the end of September.

Signal: Does the expansion only involve adding the 1,000 women, or will there be more men's beds, as well?

Rodriguez: There will be, but not there. The plan is to reopen Sybil Brand Institute in East Los Angeles, which originally housed all of the female inmates. That will be reopened, and it will house a portion of the female population. We will house the rest of them. That will free up 1,600 high-security beds at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, which currently houses all of the women.

Signal: If there are about 8,000 men at Pitchess and 19,000 in total throughout the county, is Pitchess the largest jail complex in the county?

Rodriguez: It's hard to say. We have Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, which houses about 5,000, and then across the street from it is Twin Towers, which can house another 4,000 when it's fully open. So there would be 9,000 there, which is more than I would handle. And then you have Century Regional Detention Facility with about 1,600 and then (Sybil Brand) will be reopened in a few years and they'll house another 1,200 to 1,500.
    So I'd say I have almost half — a little less than half — and the other half are either in downtown Los Angeles or in Lynwood.

Signal: The Santa Clarita Valley is a tiny little part of Los Angeles County, but we house almost half of the inmates. Why does the Santa Clarita Valley have to do more than its share of accommodating of these people?

Rodriguez: Part of the issue is that the county owns 2,600 acres there (in Castaic). They purchased it in the 1930s, and it has been the home of, originally, Wayside Honor Rancho, (which became) Pitchess detention facility. So the land is available; the site they have chosen is the site of a previous jail — it used to be what was termed the Honor Rancho.
    So the county already owns the land. That was one of the issues, because land is so expensive. And we will have an environmental impact report so the community will have a opportunity to become involved in any of the issues that they perceive or that they want to bring up.
    It's not that we're just going to go build a jail there. It's that we're now starting the process, and those are the two sites that the Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff's Department have agreed to begin the process with.
    For us, it's quite logical: We already have the four jails there; the fifth jail, operationally, will be very simple to open up. We have a cogeneration plant that we will expand — we create our own electricity, we have our own water; we actually sell our electricity to Southern California Edison for the county. We're just expanding, so we won't take any electricity from the local community; we have our own water source, we have our own sewage treatment, so we are pretty self-sustained.
    We also are a partner in the community, both in the city and the county, in the Castaic area. We have a community advisory committee. We listen to the concerns of the community. I attend the Castaic (Area) Town Council meetings. I try to be as available to them as I can be. They call me all the time, come up and see me. They have input into the operation of the ranch now.
    We want to be a good neighbor to the communities around us. We have the community of Santa Clarita south of us, and we have Castaic on the north and the west of us, and then we have the national forest on one side. But we want to be a good neighbor to the community. And also, keep in mind that a majority of my employees live here. They live in Castaic or Santa Clarita. They are residents of the communities that we want to partner up with and be a good neighbor.

Signal: And anytime there is an escape attempt, you've got a system in place where you alert the Castaic community with alarms and that sort of thing, right?

Rodriguez: Yes. We have several devices that we use. We have a phone-tree system where we immediately make notifications to the starting group of each phone tree, and then they call the rest of their neighbors. We also have sirens go off in the community. They are in Castaic and they reach down as far as Stevenson Ranch. We have one now at the Southern California Gas Co., (which) they put in for us that reaches in to the Rye Canyon area.
    We also have a plan set up with the patrol side of this Sheriff's Department, with Santa Clarita Station and the different stations that are in the northern part of Los Angeles County so they can provide resources. We have a operational plan when something happens. So not only do we make notification to the residents as quickly as possible; we also have a plan that we have used in the past to send units to designated areas.
    For example, if the schools are open, we notify the school district immediately. They lock down the schools. We send deputies to the schools. We have deputies out in radio cars from as far as way as Lancaster, Palmdale, East Los Angeles, Crescenta Valley, Temple City, Rosemead, and they flood the area with additional resources.
    And then we also have our internal plan as to how to deploy our resources, our deputies, to try to catch the person before they actually get off the property.
    I am proud to say the last two attempts were just "attempts" because the deputies caught the individual before he left the property.

Signal: Will you be the person who goes to the Castaic Area Town Council and the city of Santa Clarita and talks them through the EIR for the expansion?

Rodriguez: I will be part of it. (The construction) will actually be done by Public Works, so I'm sure Public Works will be involved with this. (The Sheriff's Department has) a facilities planning and facilities maintenance department that plans all of our construction projects, the latest one being the new Palmdale Station. They will also be involved in it. But yes, I am sure I will be very involved in answering questions and providing information to the community and addressing any issues that may come up.

Signal: One thing that made news earlier this year were the fights that broke out along racial lines at Pitchess. Was there any spillover or impact on the surrounding community from that?

Rodriguez: The only impact was that we sent a number of inmates to hospitals throughout L.A. County that day. Our policy is that whenever we send a inmate to a local hospitals, we send two deputy sheriffs with them, and they stay with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week until that person is either released from custody or that person is brought back to jail, or that person is transferred to Los Angeles County Medical Center.
    That comes from the incident a couple of years ago at Henry Mayo (Newhall Memorial Hospital) where the inmate managed to escape and went into a residence and assaulted a older gentleman. Since then, we've increased the number of deputies with every inmate from one to two, and since then we haven't had an issue. I think that's the way that we will be able to solve that problem.
    So that was the only impact on the community. All of the fighting was inside the buildings. None of it was directed at staff, and there was never any attempt made to escape. It was merely fighting among the inmates in the dormitories, and once the fighting was over and they were separated, there was never again any attempt at escaping or any attempt to assault any of the staff.

Signal: The people who engaged in the fighting — were they rivals from the streets in L.A. who brought their gang rivalry with them to the jail?

Rodriguez: Yes. The Los Angeles County jail population has changed in the 34 years that I have been in law enforcement.
    We've gone from being a county jail — and I think people may still have the perception that were a county jail: You get arrested, you go to court, you get convicted and you do your county jail time with us; if you're convicted of a felony you'll do your time in state prison
    That's the way it used to be. Now it has changed to the point where about 90 percent of our inmates have not been through the criminal justice system yet. They are awaiting trial, they are in trial, or they are parolees who are either awaiting their parole hearing or they have had a parole hearing and we will hold them for 30, 60, 90, 180 days until they are released back on parole.
    So we have a small portion of our population that's actually a county jail inmate that's serving time for burglary or drunk driving or petty theft or something like that. Again, the majority have not been sentenced. They are awaiting trial, they are in jail for felonies. That's the reason why, if you are convicted of a misdemeanor and you're sentenced to county jail, you're going to serve 10 percent of your time. We just don't have the room.

Signal: So these are more of the hardened criminal types in Pitchess today than in the past.

Rodriguez: Yes. About 50 percent of them are in for assault and felonies, and then another 25 percent are in for narcotics, and the rest are in for lesser felonies. But they are all in for felonies. A lot of them are going to go to state prison. We send 2,000 to 2,500 inmates to state prison every month from our jail system after they have been convicted of a felony.
    So, yes. We have hard-core people who have been arrested for very serious crimes, and we're now holding them in what was designed to be a county jail.

Signal: If you're holding them 30, 60, 90 or 180 days, is that because the court system is so slow?

Rodriguez: No, those are the ones who are generally sentenced for parole violations. The court process could take up to two years, so we may hold someone in jail for two or three years, even, if they're in jail for murder and their case takes that long before their case is adjudicated. They'll be with us.

Signal: Are people held more than a year at Pitchess?

Rodriguez: Yes and no. We (have) a very transitory population because of the issue of court and the issue of medical needs and the issue of housing. You may spend a year or two in county jail before your case is adjudicated, but you probably won't spend it all in one jail.
    The average inmate probably spends between 35 and 50 days at one of my jails and then he is gone. He may go to (Men's) Central Jail while he is in trial, and if there's a recess, he may come back — and then he may not come back to the same jail because of the bed situation. A bed may not be available at one jail so he goes to another jail. Then he may go back to court, and he will go back to Central Jail or Twin Towers. He may stay there while he is in trial, and then at the end of that trial he may come back to me. Now, he may have other "holds," or he may have other cases. (But) for me, between 30 or 35 and 50 days in one of my jails is about the average stay.
    So they are not permanently housed there in the sense (that) they come in, we put them in a dorm or a bed and they are going to be there for two years. It's a constant turnover. It's a constant movement of inmates between my facilities and downtown Los Angeles and court. If they get sick for some reason or they have a medical need or they get injured in some way, they are moved again.
    We house well inmates up there; we have a clinic for inmates who have illnesses, where we can medicate them; they may be diabetic or on some kind of medication. We actually have a building that houses all of our inmates who are on medication. But if they are sick for some reason and they need medical attention, we have nurses on duty, but other than that, we send them downtown to Central Jail or Twin Towers. So again we have the movement.

Signal: So if somebody is up on a first-degree murder charge and their trial takes a two years to process, they're going to be in the county jail system all that time. They're not going to be in the state prison system during that time.

Rodriguez: That's correct.

Signal: If you're sentenced to less than a year — 364 days — you do your time in a county jail. If its 365 days or more, you're supposed to do your time in state prison. So if you have all of these potential state prisoners clogging the county jail system, are judges simply not sentencing people to time in a county jail, as much as they did in the past?

Rodriguez: Oh, no. They are. They sentence them to six months, nine months, a year in the county jail. (But) because of our issue about not having enough bed space available for them, they do 10 percent of that time. If you are sentenced to 364 days in a county jail, you'll do 36.4 days, and then you will be released.
    We have just sent a letter to the state. We're going to suspend the contract with the state. That's about 1,294 beds where they were actually paying us to house their parolees after they were sentenced on a parole violation. I think it's six months from the date we notify them until they have to move their prisoners out. That will give us another 1,300 beds, and we're hoping at that point, we can increase the time for county jail inmates — the time that they serve in county jail — higher than the 10 percent.

Signal: Those 1,300 beds out of the 19,000 people who are in the county jail system — that's only after sentencing, right? What about the potential state prisoners who are in the county jail system while they're going through trial? Does the state reimburse you for them?

Rodriguez: The state doesn't pay for them until they are either convicted and they become state inmates, or they are parolees who have a parole hearing, their parole is violated and they are housed in our jail for a shorter period of time than a year.
    A lot of this depends upon what happens with crime in Los Angeles County. The fewer people who are arrested, the more bed space we have. We're hoping that by freeing up the beds from the state, by building the two jails for females and by opening up additional beds at (Century Regional), that we will be able to house the number of pre-sentenced and unsentenced inmates who are in trial or awaiting trial, and then begin to keep people who are in for county jail sentences longer and longer.

Signal: If there are so many potential state prisoners in the system, is the state helping to pay for the expansion?

Rodriguez: No. It's just the county of Los Angeles.

Signal: How much will it cost?

Rodriguez: My jail, I believe, is estimated at about $110 million plus additional moneys for the cogeneration plant, to build a 1,000-bed dormitory-type jail for the women.

Signal: You produce your own energy; are you still milking your own cows?

Rodriguez: No.

Signal: Wayside used to provide all the milk for the entire county jail system; you had the cows there and the inmates on the honor system would milk them. That's gone?

Rodriguez: It's gone. The dairy operation is gone, the pig farm is gone, the growing of the alfalfa and the other food sources is gone.

Signal: Is minimum security gone?

Rodriguez: No, actually, we do have a few hundred minimum-security inmates.

Signal: What's the difference between minimum, medium and maximum security?

Rodriguez: What we use is a nationally accepted system called Northpoint. When individuals come into the county jail system, they are classified — this is a security level — several questions are asked and the answers are put into the computer system, and the computer tells you what level these inmates are. They can be 1 to 9, nine being the highest, 1 being the lowest.
    The system is designed that as you go through the process of being housed in the county jail, your security level could increase or it could decrease. For example, if you came in at a level 7 and you violated some of the in-house jail rules and you receive discipline, you could become an 8 or even a 9, which is the highest level. On the other hand, if you're in jail and you're a model prisoner and you don't get in trouble, you're a trustee, you may start out as a level 6 and you may drop to a level 4.
    Basically 1-4 is minimum security, 5-7 is medium security, and 8's and 9's are high security. At Pitchess Detention Center, with the exception of one housing module, all of the beds are designed for medium security, 5, 6 and 7. North County Correctional Facility (NCCF), our newest jail there, has a wing (with) two-man, hard-lock cells. They are designed to hold level 8's and level 9's. Under the system, that's where we put level 8's and level 9's: They're designed to be in two-person cells. The 5's, 6's and 7's are either in cells or dormitories, and the 1-4's are in dormitories.

Signal: Even the 9's are in a two-person cell? You don't have anybody in isolation at Pitchess?

Rodriguez: No.

Signal: Are there any one-man cells in the county jail system?

Rodriguez: There are one-man cells, yes.

Signal: People such as (Night Stalker) Richard Ramirez would be in a one-man cell?

Rodriguez: Yes. And there are what we call "keep away" people who you wouldn't want to have contact with other inmates for a variety of reasons. We do have a number of one-person cells at Central Jail for those type of individuals.

Signal: But not in Castaic.

Rodriguez: No. Mine are primarily dormitory, anywhere from 64 to 148 in a dorm. I do have two-person cells in all the facilities. Some are designed for discipline, for inmates who violate the rules — and we follow the state of California's rules and procedures for imposing the discipline — and they will go into discipline housing. They lose some of their privileges, no phone calls, no television, things like that.

Signal: Do they still get fed three times a day?

Rodriguez: Yes, they do they still get fed. But they only get one hot meal a day.

Signal: Is the requirement two or three meals?

Rodriguez: The requirement is three meals, but only one hot meal a day. Breakfast and lunch are cold, and dinner is a hot meal.

Signal: Is that what you did with the people who were involved in the rioting back in February?

Rodriguez: Yes — well, in fact, we locked the entire system down. We suspended all privileges for two weeks to all inmates in the entire county jail system. There were no visits, no phone calls, no mail, no television, no telephones, no commissary, no vending machines, none of that.

Signal: There was an issue about keeping people separated. There was a Supreme Court ruling that said inmates couldn't be segregated along racial lines, but Sheriff Baca decided to keep the black and Hispanic inmates away from each other anyway — and you did, right?

Rodriguez: Yes, we did. On Feb. 4, that night, the sheriff made the decision to segregate the Hispanics and the blacks. And we did that. We went through the system systematically at NCCF — that's the only jail we did it at. We segregated the races out.
    There were disturbances at the other jails following that, later in February, and we continued to remain integrated at those jails. Then, shortly after Feb. 4 at NCCF, we began putting it back together. We started with our trustee dorms, and then we did our "pill call" dorms. We reintegrated the inmates at NCCF.
    The one thing that we did do that was unusual, and was actually an experiment, was that we identified some of the more hard-core, shot-calling individuals who we felt were responsible for some of the disturbances, and we started isolating them from the general population.

Signal: When you say individuals, do you mean you know who they are — not just that they fit a certain profile?

Rodriguez: We went by (whether) they were a self-admitted member of a gang, an identifiable gang. They are primarily of one race, but there are all races involved in that.
    We did that as an experiment to see if we could reduce the tension and the disturbances in the jails. What we found is that the number of incidents decreased across the board at the different jails, regardless of whether they were completely integrated or whether we had taken the problematic shot-calling inmates and isolated them from the general population. We didn't see any change.
    Things were very quiet until July 13, when we had another major round of disturbances up there, where blacks and Hispanics again fought along racial lines at two of the three jails. There was nothing at NCCF because the majority of those, this one gang was isolated. We've seen a couple of small disturbances there, but nothing of that magnitude.
    We're looking at how best to deal with this, and you're right — but it was a Supreme Court decision in 2005, based on a California Department of Corrections unwritten procedure that they used, where they — when you went to a new jail, I believe, or you went into the system, you were segregated by race for the first 30 or 60 days until they found a housing location and they classified you. One of their inmates sued, and the state court agreed with the state of California. They went to the Supreme Court; the Supreme Court disagreed and sent them back to the lower court, and I believe their policy has changed.
    But the Supreme Court of the United States outlawed segregation by race in prisons in about 1968.

Signal. Was the action on Feb. 4 to segregate the Latinos and the blacks consistent with the state and federal constitutions?

Rodriguez: I think it was OK. The first thing we did before we did it was ask our attorneys, and they said it was OK for a short time, (for the sake of) the protection and the well-being and the life of the inmates in the jail.
    Then, immediately after the disturbances — now you have to remember, there were 2,200 out of 4,000 inmates who took part in this. It occurred within 15 minutes, they all began fighting. So at that point, yes, we separated them out because we wanted to stop the violence.

Signal: Is the ACLU or anybody challenging the decision?

Rodriguez: No. Because again, the other dorms up there are integrated; the other jails were integrated after — well, after Feb. 4, none of the jails were segregated except NCCF, and then we put that back together as quickly as we could.
    If certain inmates, gang members, are not isolated from the general population, those other dorms are integrated. They're not by race.

Signal: What do you want to say to the people of Castaic as you go into this expansion?

Rodriguez: We want to continue to be a good neighbor. We want to address any of their concerns and issues.
    We'd like them to come see our operation and meet the people who work there and see what we do. I think once they get to know us and see how professional my employees are and how good of an operation they run up there, what we do day in and day out — my No. 1 concern is my people, and then that none of my inmates leaves the facility unless they're being escorted or on a bus somewhere. We try desperately to keep the escapes to zero. It will never be never, but we minimize that the best we can.
    We're going to be as open and honest as we can be. We'll answer any question they have. I invite the residents of the community to come see the operation and become involved in the planning process so that we can address all their needs, and hopefully we can continue to be a good neighbor and continue to work together.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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