Fresno County will spend almost $82 million to build a new 300-bed jail facility in downtown Fresno. But it’s going to take several years to build, and rather than adding new beds, this one will replace a much older facility.
County supervisors voted Tuesday to award a contract to a San Fernando contractor, Bernard Bros. Inc., for just under $81.8 million, for the new jail to be built at the southeast corner of Merced and L streets, just behind the Fresno County Jail’s North Annex. The site is now a parking lot for jail staff.
The three-story building will include two floors of inmate housing for medium- and maximum-security offenders, plus a basement for laundry services, a warehouse and administrative staff. In addition to jail cells and day rooms, the upper two floors and mezzanines will also have spaces for medical treatment, interviews, visitation and mental health services.
Sheriff Margaret Mims said the new jail will replace housing areas of the county’s original main jail, now known as the South Annex. Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said the old jail was built in 1941.
A more modern “pod” design to the layout of the jail cells, compared to linear rows of cells in the old jail, will be more efficient for jailers to keep tabs on inmates. “It takes fewer people to watch the same number of inmates,” Mims said after the contract vote.
The state will pick up more than $74 million of the cost to build the new jail. The rest will come from an array of different county sources.
Fresno County’s jails have faced overcrowding for years, and a 1994 court order capped the number of inmates that can be held at any given time. That, coupled with a state’s prison realignment program that shifts low-level offenders from prisons to county jails, has put a near-constant strain on the Sheriff’s Office to juggle which inmates to keep behind bars and which ones must be released for lack of space. Mims said the jail now releases an average of three inmates each day.
Combined, Fresno County’s jail facilities – the old South Annex on the southwest corner of Fresno and M streets, the main jail on the opposite side of Fresno Street, and the North Annex at Merced and M streets – can hold 3,291 inmates. The old South Annex has a capacity of 499 beds – about 200 more than the new facility that will eventually replace it. Among the requirements of the state funding is that it cannot create a net increase in jail capacity for the county.
The sheriff said she hopes the treatment and services inmates will receive in the mental-health facilities of the new jail – required as condition of receiving state money for the project – “means that people won’t be coming back as often” as repeat offenders. Although the state requires those program spaces, Mims said they would have been necessary components for any new jail building.
Plans for a new West Annex jail have been in the works for years, and the state originally earmarked money for the project in 2014. “One of my goals has been to get this done by the time I’m ready to not be the sheriff anymore,” Mims said. But building and opening a new jail will not be a fast process. A staff report presented to supervisors Tuesday indicated that if the state Department of Finance approves the county’s contract award, construction could commence in January and be completed in the fall of 2020.
Once the new jail is completed, it is expected to take three months to transfer inmates into it from the South Annex. An underground tunnel connecting the main jail, North Annex and South Annex to the nearby Fresno County Courthouse will remain in use, and a new section of tunnel will connect the new jail to the North Annex.
“Staff anticipates that the county may use classroom and recreational space in the South Annex Jail for programming education and/or recreational purposes for inmates, but not for housing inmates,” the staff report said.
Only two contractors submitted bids for the work. Bernard Bros. was the low bidder, but the other company, USS Cal Builders Inc. of Orange County, filed a protest with the county. USS Cal Builders’ bid came in at just shy of $83 million – about $1.2 million more than Bernard Bros. But the company asserted that Bernard Bros. should be disqualified because of irregularities in its bid documents. Supervisors rejected that protest Tuesday and unanimously voted to award the contract to Bernard Bros.
Bids from both companies came in higher than the architect’s estimate of $76.9 million for the project.