The San Joaquin County Jail’s Honor Farm is intended to be a low-security facility for minor offenders.
Since 2004, there have been 274 escapees from the Honor Farm and work crews sent out from the facility. All but one have been recaptured, according to the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office.
But since the passage of AB-109 – the California law that has allowed inmates to be housed at county-run facilities, when previously they would have been in state prisons – there are more concerns about the type of inmate who might be able to escape from the Honor Farm.
“These are hardened, violent inmates our staff has to deal with and our community has to fear,” San Joaquin County retired deputy sergeant Patrick Withrow told ABC10 News.
Sheriff Steve Moore disagrees with that assessment of the Honor Farm’s inmate population.
“The ones we send to the Honor Farm are truly low-risk, supposed to be non-violent, which is the only reason we put them in that position. Anyone we believe is not [low-risk] stays in the main facility,” Moore told ABC10 News.
Joshua Johnson was one AB-109 offender who escaped from the Honor Farm. In the summer of 2015, he was on the run for four days before being recaptured.
In December 2016, Johnson was released on community supervision. Two days after his release, he stopped making contact with probation; court filings reveal that a letter sent to his reported address instructing him to report to probation was returned by the United States Postal Service “indicating that the defendant has never lived at that address.”
At the time of the filing, on Jan. 19, 2017, his whereabouts were unknown.
The filing – a petition for Johnson’s community supervision to be revoked – indicates that Johnson had 12 previous felony and five misdemeanor convictions.
“The STRONG Static Risk Assessment identifies the risk to re-offend as High Risk – Violent,” the petition reads.
To Withrow’s mind, it’s only one example of the type of person housed at the Honor Farm.
“I don’t feel safe, and I get to carry a gun,” Withrow said. “I think families know when violent people get to escape, walk-away, or whatever you want to call it, from this facility, they are put at risk.”
Since AB-109 went into effect in 2011, Moore has taken steps to reinforce the Honor Farm, which has cut down but not eliminated the number of escapees.
In 2013, the county was awarded $33 million to build a medium-security facility. That grant money was rescinded due to an appeal by Stanislaus County, and the facility has not yet been built, though plans for that new jail have recently been revived.
Two years later, in 2015, the sheriff’s office spent more than $360,000 reinforcing the wire fencing around the Honor Farm.
In the years immediately following the passage of AB-109, however, the sheriff’s office was under-budget, raising questions about whether more money could have been spent adding further security measures to the Honor Farm.
From 2011 to 2014, the sheriff’s office was under-budget by a combined total of more than $10 million.
Moore says that money could not have been reallocated for the purpose of strengthening the Honor Farm’s boundaries.
“That comes from salary savings from positions we couldn’t fill … I’d have to go back to the board to get funding. I can’t just take money from one area and spend it someplace else without board approval,” Moore said.
When questioned further, Moore said he did go to the board for the money spent on the fences, but did not ask for further funds.
“The honor farm … is a minimum-security facility. The only way I’ll be able to combat that is to build a new facility, which I’ve been doing,” Moore said, adding that there were no other ways to reinforce the facility given its current design.
Withrow disagrees, arguing that more could have been done with the unspent dollars.
“As you look here, we have lighting from probably the 1950’s – no motion sensors, no cameras whatsoever,” Withrow said. “I can go to my friend’s house, and if I step on his front porch a video camera captures me and sends it to his iPhone immediately. We don’t even have cameras here to alert staff if someone gets close to the fence, let alone escape.”
Moore says it will likely be two years before a medium-security facility can be built and opened. In the meantime, despite the number of escapees at the Honor Farm, the sheriff says the people of San Joaquin county can feel safe.
“I believe they do [feel safe], or I wouldn’t have been elected three times,” Moore said.
Withrow says he is considering running against Moore once again in the 2018 primary for the position of San Joaquin County Sheriff.
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