On any given day, the Humboldt County Correctional Facility is home to about 400 people. Most live in general population dorms — large, open rooms where a single correctional officer keeps watch over as many as 75 inmates.
Others, including the most violent, the severely mentally ill, and gang members who’ve informed on fellow inmates, spend their days in the maximum-security unit, locked inside small cells for up to 23-and-a-half hours per day, minus about three hours per week in the rec room.
Thanks to AB 109, California’s 2011 Public Safety Realignment initiative aimed at reducing prison overcrowding, people convicted of certain non-violent, non-serious offenses wind up serving their prison terms in county jails. Along with 2014’s Proposition 47, which reclassified certain non-violent felonies as misdemeanors, realignment succeeded in reducing the state’s prison population, which had grown so bloated (the state’s 35 prisons housed roughly 180 percent of their design capacity at the peak) that the U.S. Supreme Court found the conditions violated the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
But these laws have also had some unintended consequences. With inmates serving longer terms in county jails — for offenses that formerly would have seen them shipped off to prison — jail culture has come to resemble prison culture, with increased violence and rigid social rules defined by gangs and by race.
And with the Humboldt County Jail almost always filled to near capacity, more people are getting cited and immediately placed back on the streets, especially perpetrators of property crimes.
The Outpost recently visited the jail, interviewing two corrections officers as well as a pair of inmates — one male, one female — serving long-term sentences in the facility. We hoped to learn a bit more about what day-to-day life is like inside the “Pink House” for inmates as well as correctional deputies.
The officers, Captain Duane Christian and Staff Lieutenant Jason Benge of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, described a more violent jail, with increased assaults on staff as well as among inmates. They listed a host of rehabilitative programs on offer but also described an atmosphere ruled by gang affiliation and strict racial divides, with power exerted through intimidation and coercion. Mental illness among inmates is prevalent, their behavior unpredictable. And with 12-hour shifts, the job can be so stressful that it’s difficult to shake off once they’re back home.
The inmates, meanwhile, offered mixed messages about life inside. The food’s not bad; there are opportunities to improve yourself; and the staff is generally friendly and helpful, they said. And yet being confined, cut off from friends and family (and perhaps the substances they’d come to depend on), leaves them alone with their thoughts for hours on end. Both vowed that upon their release, they’ll never be back.
Christopher Dahl, 35, is soft-spoken to the point of seeming bashful. Seated behind a folding table in a small, windowless room on the jail’s ground floor, Dahl kept his eyes aimed downward, raising them only fleetingly as he described his daily routine and the path that landed him here, with three months remaining on a two-year sentence.
If you only heard the details of his daily routine you might assume that Dahl doesn’t mind living in the Humboldt County Correctional Facility.
“As far as jails go this is one of the — what’s the word for it? It’s not a very scary place,” he said. That’s at least partly due to which section he’s housed in. “I’m in the workers dorm now, and they generally don’t put problematic people in the workers dorm,” he said. Plus, he managed to get on kitchen duty, working both the breakfast and dinner shifts. Not only does this help pass the time, but the kitchen jobs are coveted because you get to eat while you work.
There’s also coffee. “Whether you’re doing kitchen or laundry you get to just drink as much coffee as you can stomach,” Dahl said with a shy smile. “That’s about the only drug in here is caffeine, so people have at it. It’s funny.”
The food’s not bad. He especially enjoys spaghetti night when the portions are big. He exercises and reads in here (Chuck Palahniuk books are his favorite). These are activities he doesn’t do on the outside. Plus he’s taking courses offered to inmates through College of the Redwoods, including one on career guidance.
But when Dahl considered the big picture — after being asked straight-up, “What’s it like living in here?” — his demeanor changed. His voice got even quieter and he went still.
“If you’ve never been here you got no idea,” he said. “And if you’ve been here, soon as you leave here you tend to forget, you know? Like, when I walk out of here usually I try to blank this out as all just a bad dream.”
Dahl has been in and out of jail for the past two-and-a-half years, mostly for violating probation by failing to check in with his probation officer for a conviction on possession of methamphetamines for sale. He and his girlfriend have been homeless in Arcata, and he had trouble getting rides to the probation office in Eureka.
Now, though, he’s serving what’s called a “terminal sentence,” meaning he’ll have no probation or parole once he’s released. He sees it as an opportunity for a fresh start. He doesn’t want to forget again what it’s like living in jail.
“But some people? Some people like it here,” he said. “You’re indoors. You’re fed. Some people have that kind of mindset.”
Not you? we ask.
“No,” he answered quickly. “No no no no. No, I can’t wait to get out there. I’ve been nothing but worried sick about my girlfriend and where she is and how she is and what she’s doing and who’s around her. So I cannot wait to get the hell out of here. The Ides of March is my release date right now. March 15.” The thought seemed to make him happy, but a moment later his face dropped. “It’s a long time,” he said.
Niamh Underwood (her first name is Gaelic, pronounced “Neve”) also works in the kitchen, reads during downtimes and takes classes through CR, even ones she doesn’t need. For example, she’s taking a class for inmates hoping to earn their GED even though she’s a high-school graduate. Why?
“For me, when I’m in here, I have to not think,” she said — not think about being incarcerated, that is. “’Cause there’s things that bother me, like my boyfriend not coming to visit me right now. … He lost his ID so he can’t come visit.”
While Dahl was reserved, Underwood was amped up, talking rapidly and answering questions before they were even finished. “I’m nervous what to say,” she confessed at one point.
Underwood has also been in and out of the jail for the last few years, and like Dahl she’s serving a “terminal sentence” for an offense that would previously have landed her in state prison. She might have preferred being sent to prison, she said, if only because she’s heard there are more activities to fill the days.
After getting busted for possession of stolen property three years ago, Underwood was given a three-year prison term but managed to avoid long-term incarceration by agreeing to attend a 90-day drug treatment program through Humboldt Recovery Center. What she didn’t tell authorities was that she had no intention of seeing the program through. “I ran from the first 10 minutes of being there,” she said. “I made it 15 months on the run. So I made it from November 2016 ‘til February of this year on the run.”
She got busted again in April, and after serving a couple months in jail she was again given the option of release on the condition of attending a drug treatment program. She agreed again, though she still had no intention of seeing it though. This time she made it six months on the run before getting caught.
Remarkably, she was offered drug court yet again. “They were gonna give me a third chance — and I said, ‘No. I just want to sit all my time out and get out with no probation, no parole, absolutely nothing. I just get out free.”
Underwood found her time on the lam exhausting. “It’s so stressful,” she said. “The stress of walking to the gas station — every second you’re looking over your shoulder. Every person whose car I get in [I ask], ‘Is your car registered? Can you slow down? Can you put your seatbelt on?’ It’s just nonstop.”
Like Dahl, Underwood said she’s planning to remain free after her release this time, though jail could be worse, she said. “It’s not that bad here. Honestly, everybody I know is here. It’s really not that bad.”
A few minutes later, though, Underwood started squirming as she considered the suffocating helplessness of being locked up. “For me, if I’m sitting down and not keeping busy I’ll start thinking about the things [on the outside] that are bothering me, and then I just dwell on it,” she said. “You can’t deal with those things in here. There’s nothing you can do. When people don’t answer the phone you can’t do anything. You know what I mean?” Here she mimicked a pre-recorded voice: “‘Your call was not accepted,’ and you want to smash the phone ‘cause it’s just really frustrating, and you just don’t know.”
Neither Dahl nor Underwood said they’ve been affected much by gang influence, one of the benefits of being housed in the workers dorm. But Captain Christian, who has worked at the jail for the past 18 years, said the cultural change post-realignment was dramatic. Inmates facing long prison terms used to remain on their best behavior while in the county jail so they could maintain their privileges — phone calls, family visits, etc. — before being shipped off to prison.
“Now those guys, they’re not waiting,” Christian said. “They know they’re gonna do their time here, so they basically, from day one, they come in the door [and] they start those prison politics.”
This change is reflected in the jail’s assault stats. From 2010 through 2013 there were fewer than 50 inmate-on-inmate assaults per year. The numbers increased steadily after 2011, the year AB 109 was passed, reaching a high of 106 assaults in 2016.
Assaults on staff have grown more frequent, too, jumping from a half-dozen or fewer in 2012, ’13 and ’14 all the way up to 34 assaults the following year and 37 last year, though Christian doesn’t attribute that increase to gangs. (More on that below.)
Christian said the older inmates tend to control things, using the power they’ve accumulated during their years of incarceration to control younger inmates, giving them orders as prerequisites to joining their group. Often those orders involve assaulting a fellow inmate.
Active gangs inside the Humboldt County Correctional Facility include Norteños and Sureños as well as the HCG (Humboldt County Gangsters) and CWB (Crazy White Boys).
Lt. Benge, who’s been working at the jail for close to 24 years, estimated that only about 10 to 20 percent of inmates are directly affiliated with these organizations, but they rule the roost nonetheless. “Gangs work off of intimidation and violence,” he said.
Young inmates in particular are susceptible. The classic case, Christian said, the scenario he sees again and again, is a young drug addict, 18 or 19, who resorted to burglary to support his prescription drug habit. Maybe his parents kicked him out of the house because he burned too many bridges, or maybe he never had much of a family to begin with. He arrives in jail scared and lonely. Gangs offer him community and protection.
“People are always looking for that comfort, something to belong to,” Christian said. “So that’s a natural transition, and these gangs prey on that.”
The staff is constantly trying to combat these dynamics, but it’s difficult, Benge said. It’s also tough for inmates to stay above the fray, unaffected by gang affiliations or race-based social segregation.
“You can try to walk a straight line but it’s difficult not to get caught up in it,” Benge said. He outlined a scenario in which a black guy and a white guy who may well be friends on the outside make the mistake of sharing a bag of potato chips in one of the open dorms.
“These older, more influential guys will go up to [one of them] and say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that. You can’t be offering or taking a chip,’” Benge said. “Or they may not even give ‘em a chance to explain. They’ll send somebody after to assault ‘em in the bathroom.”
Staff doesn’t separate inmates by race or gang affiliation — Norteños, Sureños and Crazy White Boys may all be housed in the same dorm, bunking right next to each other — but according to Christian, they coalesce into separate groups anyway.
“If you go look in a dorm at mealtime, every table is typically segregated by either a gang or race,” he said.
There’s often an “other table” as well, occupied by those who don’t fit into any of the strictly defined groups. It could be white guys who don’t associate with the white power gangs, or it could be people suffering from mental health issues.
“They all gravitate to each other because none of the other groups want ‘em,” Christian said.
The mentally ill inmates present a whole other set of challenges for jail staff. Christian said that almost all the inmate assaults on staff he’s seen in his career were due to mental illness. He estimated that about 10 percent of the population — 40 of the 400 inmates on a typical day — suffer from a severe mental illness.
Some have been deemed incompetent to stand trial and are waiting to be sent to a mental hospital. Others are awaiting a determination on their mental capacity. Still others have come back from the mental hospital and are being held while they await trial or conservatorship
The situation is less than ideal, for staff and the mentally ill alike.
“We’re the largest mental health facility in the county,” Benge said. “But we’re the jail. So you take somebody who has a mental health problem … and you stick ‘em in a cell. What’s gonna happen? That’s just gonna compound their issues.”
Sempervirens, the county’s in-patient mental health facility, The county’s Crisis Stabilization Unit has a single four-bed unit for patients suffering psychiatric emergencies, but if a juvenile or female patient gets admitted to that unit, the rest of the beds must be left vacant.
What options does that leave law enforcement when they respond to a disturbance call involving someone with mental health problems?
“It’s not against the law to have a mental issue,” Benge said. “It’s not against the law to be crazy.”
Still, officers also don’t want to abandon someone who’s in crisis.
“Where can they take ‘em that’s secure in the community, where they’re gonna be safe?” Christian asked. “The jail. So they charge ‘em with disorderly conduct [or] public intoxication,” even if the officer is unsure about the patient’s sobriety.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people we get brought in for public intoxication that there’s really no way of knowing,” Christian said. “Someone under the influence of methamphetamine will present very much like someone who’s in a severe mental crisis and doesn’t have any drugs onboard.”
So they get placed in jail, where at least they have a bed and shelter. These folks are typically released in relatively short order.
Christian admitted that this plays into the revolving-door problem and leads to more crimes, “but most are minor in nature,” he said — property crimes, generally. He considers this the least-bad alternative given the constraints of the system. The mentally ill can’t all be institutionalized.
“Even someone with mental illness has rights,” he said. And when the choice is between housing a homeless man who repeatedly trespasses at McDonald’s and giving that bed to someone who just burglarized a house, the more serious crime takes precedence, Christian said. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Benge said these issues aren’t unique to Humboldt County. “Mental health is one of the biggest issues with corrections right now, statewide,” he said.
Another big issue, he said, is Prop. 47. Many in law enforcement — and the general public — have a dim view of the recent changes to the state’s criminal justice system.
The L.A. Times recently reported that while California’s crime rates remain near historic lows, overall crime spiked in both 2012 and 2015, the years immediately following the passage of AB 109 and Prop. 47. “Those jumps were mainly driven by increases in property crimes, particularly thefts from motor vehicles,” the Times noted.
Prop. 47 reduced certain felonies to misdemeanors, including some drug possession charges, petty theft, receiving stolen property and forging checks in the amount of $950 or less. Christian feels that was counterproductive in the long term.
“Now that [those crimes] are all misdemeanors we can’t possibly keep [inmates] in jail long enough to get them any beneficial services to correct that behavior.”
That’s just one of the frustrations of the job. The typical schedule for a compliance officer includes 12-hour shifts, working three days in a row followed by four off, then four days at work followed by three off, etc. Benge said it takes a toll.
“Dealing with the stress of in here, the mental stress, it wears on you,” he said. Not many employees work in the jail for as long as he has, and Benge understands why. “You can just imagine … you’re dealing with the worst of society, 12 hours a day.” People locked in sobering cells kick, pound and yell for hours on end. “Your patience wears thin. You go home and it affects your home life, because when you get home you don’t want to hear yelling and pounding. Well, if you’ve got a young kid, what do kids do?” They yell and pound, of course. “You lose your patience with that,” Benge said.
In his off-time Benge is a basketball coach, and he has taken to thinking of himself as a coach when he’s on the job, too. “Yeah, that’s what I do to survive,” he said. “You see a lot of people who go into law enforcement, they become cop 24/7 — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you need to give your body a break. You need to give your mind a break and live with people in the general society that can bring you back to [feeling like] the human race is good.”
People tend to view incarceration primarily as a means of punishing criminals and keeping them sequestered from the rest of society. But is that really the point? County jails are called “correctional” facilities; state prisons are run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (Ironically, that redundant second descriptor, “rehabilitation,” was added in 2005 as the state’s rate of warehousing prisoners was skyrocketing to unsustainable and inhumane levels.)
In both name and theory, then, the purpose of holding people captive, within our criminal justice system, is to correct them somehow, to alter their mindset and behavior so that when they’re inevitably released back into society they don’t reoffend.
Does it work? Sometimes, yes. More often, no. California has long had one of the highest recidivism rates in the county, with about 65 percent of the people released from prison returning within a year. The county doesn’t track the rate of repeat offenders, but no one disputes the jail’s “revolving door” reputation.
Dahl and Underwood spoke highly of the jail’s staff and the available programs. Dahl had his few belongings, including his birth certificate, Social Security card and some clothes, locked in a storage unit in Arcata, and he assumes the unit’s contents will be auctioned off before his release. So he asked the jail staff for help, and they’ve already gotten his important documents replaced.
“The jail here helps with a lot of stuff like that,” Dahl said. “It’s pretty cool.”
The facility has a wide range of services available to inmates, including a unit dedicated to rehabilitation, with an administrative sergeant and a programs coordinator. The Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services employs a substance abuse counselor and a case manager, full-time, at the jail.
The jail offers résumé classes, some vocational classes, and staff is working toward a program that will allow inmates get their food handler’s license, helping them find jobs in restaurants, Christian said. Job fairs are held for inmates twice a year.
“We have learned that locking people up and throwing away the key is not going to be successful because at some point, no matter how long you throw that key away, they’re going back to the same community that you and I live in,” Christian said. “The only way to be successful is to rehabilitate, to give [inmates] the tools they need to be successful.”
But jails and prisons can be tough places to accomplish that task. Humboldt County’s former chief probation officer, Bill Damiano, once described the effects of incarceration as being dipped in “antisocial goo.” An environment dominated by gang intimidation, violence and racial divides doesn’t seem like the most fertile ground for getting one’s life on track.
Asked if the Humboldt County Correctional Facility works to rehabilitate people, Underwood said, “I think it’s up to the person themselves.” Both jail staff and inmates agree that social connections are key. Underwood has many friends locked up with her, and a history of returning to the jail. But her fiancé is on the outside, and he’s on a Suboxone program designed to ween him off a heroin addiction.
Underwood hopes to move in with her fiancé and his grandma once she gets released, and she plans to take advantage of addiction treatment programs, too.
“I have a good chance of succeeding when I get out ‘cause I have those things waiting for me,” she said.
Dahl said his time in jail is working to rehabilitate him as well, “Because I do what they offer and they offer enough to keep you on task. … So if you want it and you’re willing to not be shy, to go all in, you can get them to work for you, and you can stay out of trouble when you get out of here, I suspect.”
Asked what he plans to do upon his release on the Ides of March, Dahl said he’ll get on a city bus (the jail offers bus passes), head to the welfare office and get his food stamps lined up.
“Then I’ll go to the DMV, get a new ID. That’ll be a good start,” he said. “Then I’ll go back to Arcata and I’ll try to find my girlfriend.” He looked lost for a moment, his eyes aimed at the floor. “That’s about the extent of my plans. I don’t have a place to go. I don’t have a home.”
Maybe he and his girlfriend will head to South Dakota, where Dahl was raised. Or maybe they’ll move somewhere else entirely. But he’s optimistic, he said, because he’ll be done with probation and done with jail.
“Having that monkey off your back is going to change everything for us, I think,” he said.