As one of the first people housed at the Santa Barbara County North Branch Jail, Ruben Gomez says the new facility doesn’t compare to its older counterpart on the South Coast.
“It was funny because you walk through these hallways, you kind of have this weird little feeling that so many people have been through this, compared to here where it’s just a much cleaner, much brighter facility” , he told Noozhawk.
“You walk down the halls, it’s just a much better vibe overall,” added Gomez, 41.
the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department said the first people in custody arrived in late January, two months after officials met to announce the project’s completion.
The new secondary jail at 2301 Black Road west of Santa Maria was deemed operational with over 240 inmates housed there as of mid-February.
It is built to house 376 people and is significantly smaller than the one on the south coast main prisonwhich typically houses 700-900 people, with a smaller population due to release policies related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Does it look like a prison?” asked Sheriff’s Lt. Bill Wolf standing in a quiet room.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Lt. Bill Wolf explains the process for booking and admitting inmates to the new Santa Maria North Branch Jail. (Photo by Janene Scully/Noozhawk)
Tiled floors shine in some areas, showing their limited use so far. A prison worker couldn’t resist removing a rare black scuff mark from the floor during a visit.
But the gleaming establishment could be any institution if it weren’t for the clanking sounds resonating as the doors slammed open and closed.
After 27 years working in corrections and a hands-on role at the new facility, Wolf loves to talk, even brag, about the North Branch prison.
“If you can’t tell, I’m kinda proud of this place,” he said.
Instead of bars, the new prison features high-quality glass, one of the many ways it embraces the 21st century approach to corrections.
“The philosophy you’re going to hear me talk about a lot is that we expect inmates to act like a rational adult with clear and concise expectations for their behavior given by custodial staff,” Wolf said.
He noted the saying posted above the prison doors in Latin and English: Each person is the architect of his own destiny.
“As you start walking through the prison, you’re going to see natural light,” Wolf said, adding that the facility lacks the features typically seen in correctional facilities.
The housing modules have different colors, acknowledging that the concrete and bars create a cold interior for a place housing humans — both inmates and staff, Wolf said.
“We wanted to make it as prescriptive as possible, but remembering that it’s still a correctional facility,” he said.
The North Branch Jail construction project ran over budget and was significantly delayed before being declared complete last year.
The first inmates were moved there in January from the main jail, at 4436 Calle Real near Santa Barbara, due to the South Coast facility’s COVID-19 outbreak.
While the installation is busy, there are more steps to be fully operational.
Before new arrestees are booked into the jail, local law enforcement personnel should be briefed on booking procedures.
Prison staff also intend to align transportation options from the remote site. The roads in the new prison lack sidewalks as they travel along agricultural fields and industrial sites, and people need a way to leave the area once they are released.
“It will increase once we open admission and lots of people come in and out,” said Custody Cmdr. said Ryan Sullivan.
The sheriff’s department also spoke to Santa Maria Regional Transit about including the North Branch Jail on a bus route and contracting with a taxi company as needed.
As Gomez awaits his pandemic-delayed trial, he said he appreciates the North Branch prison offers work opportunities — he’s on the landscape team — to help ease the daily boredom.
“I noticed that time goes by much faster here than it did at the main jail in Santa Barbara,” he said.
His work also offers a side benefit: more sunlight.
“That’s the only thing I can say is the downside of this setup is that the yards are really small so you don’t get any sunlight inside,” he said. he declares. “(With) my work, one of the benefits is that you can feel the sun’s rays hitting your skin.”
The Santa Barbara civil grand jury particularly criticized the new prison for its small recreational areas.