A vision that arose in 1987 became a reality Thursday when Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown and General Services Director Janette Pell wielded a giant pair of scissors to cut a red ribbon officially marking the completion of the Northern Branch Jail.
A crowd estimated at well over 200 people watched the event that began at 10 a.m. under a warm, sunny sky and concluded over an hour later under a freshening wind and a chilly marine layer at the site on Black Road, just south of Betteravia Road, on the west side of Santa Maria.
Law enforcement officers in uniform from numerous agencies, retired sheriffs and police chiefs and local and state officials were on hand for the unveiling of a dedication plaque and to hear speeches from some of the major players in the jail’s creation.
Brown said the state-of-the-art jail represents “a new era” in corrections as a “more humane, more understanding, safer and more efficient” way of managing offenders, noting the Main Jail that opened in 1971 in Santa Barbara “was the product of a distant era.”
“I believe we have to hold people accountable for their crimes,” Brown said. “But also, I believe in giving them tools to be successful and [giving them] a second chance.”
He said the new jail will provide such programs as dog training and cat socialization, training to become electricians and plumbers and, eventually, a jail farm where they can grow some of the facility’s food and prepare for careers in agriculture.
“The possibilities of what can occur within these walls and on these grounds are limitless,” Brown said.
A Latin phrase engraved in the archway over the main entrance reflects that philosophy: “Faber est suae quisque fortunae.” Its meaning in English, translated on a plaque beside the doors, is “I am the architect of my own future.”
The jail was purposely built to use the 24-hour-a-day “direct supervision” model that studies have shown increases safety for inmates, staff and visitors and provides a more positive social interaction between inmates and staff.
Brown and others who had key roles in developing the new jail recounted the struggles that ranged from securing an $80 million state grant to help finance the project to its construction bogging down when the architectural firm for the facility went bankrupt.
But he injected some refreshing humor into his comments by recalling wildlife issues — a mated pair of hawks that nested in trees alongside the route for the jail’s main sewer line and a barn owl that laid eggs on a girder inside one of the custody units — that also delayed the $120 million project until their fledglings had all flown.
Brown said the Sheriff’s Office expects the first inmates — a combination of transferees from the Main Jail and new bookings — to occupy the facility in late December.
The jail is rated to house 344 inmates, with another 32 in specialty mental health facility and medical clinic beds, and has on open intake area as well as its own laundry and kitchen facilities.
“It’s an exciting day, a big day for the county,” Board of Supervisors Chairman and 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson said, noting he had a special interest in it because his mother had worked for the Sheriff’s Office.
In his remarks, Nelson noted he got involved in politics because he opposed Measure S, a 2010 tax measure to fund construction of a new jail, because he felt the Board of Supervisors had not made a firm commitment to the project.
“Measure S was all about fiscal issues,” he said afterward. “I was always for [a new] jail, but the board needed to be fiscally responsible.”
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, the only supervisor whose name appears twice on the dedication plaque for being on the board that initiated the project and serving at its conclusion, said the jail will be a big benefit to Santa Maria and Guadalupe.
“The biggest change people are going to notice is if an officer is making an arrest … having to make the decision to drive all the way to Santa Barbara for booking, which is a three- to four-hour turnaround,” he said. “This is going to be a huge improvement for us, making the community safer.”
Santa Maria City Councilman Mike Cordero said he was 21 years old when the Main Jail opened in 1971.
“I was there for the opening of the other one, and 50 years later I’m here for the opening of this one,” he said, then jokingly added, “I hope to be around for the opening of a mid-county jail.”