244 inmates populate Santa Maria's Northern Branch Jail

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Jan. 25—More than 200 inmates populated the Northern Branch Jail near Santa Maria Monday after the facility was cleared for occupancy two months following completion of its construction.

The Sheriff's Office Custody Division transferred 244 inmates from the Main Jail in Santa Barbara, to the Northern Branch Jail at 2301 Black Road after receiving clearance, according to spokeswoman Raquel Zick, adding that inmates were tested for COVID-19 and given N95 masks prior to transport.

Zick said officials had recognized at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak that opening the Northern Branch Jail would provide an additional safety measure against outbreaks of COVID-19 at the Main Jail and that expediting its opening would be prudent.

The latest outbreak, which was detected on Dec. 8, has infected 221 inmates with the coronavirus, including 26 active infections as of Tuesday, according to Zick.

A "team of teams" composed of county personnel, including from the Sheriff's Office Northern Branch Jail Transition Team and Office of Systems and Technology, General Services and SJ Amoroso Construction came together, according to Zick.

"Seeing the Northern Branch Jail finally occupied is like watching a ship being launched from dry dock," Sheriff Bill Brown said. "There have been many challenges and delays during the construction process and due to the pandemic, but because of the efforts of many people, the vessel is finally underway.

"Our communities will be safer, and the lives of many offenders will be changed for the better, as a result of this state-of-the-art facility," Brown said.

Initiated in October 2016, the Northern Branch Jail's construction was completed in November, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony held on Nov. 18, 2021.

At the ceremony, Brown recalled some of the problems that delayed the jail's completion, including securing the $80 million state grant for financing and an architectural firm going bankrupt. The jail project cost $120 million in total.

The Northern Branch 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.

The facility will provide inmate programs that include dog training and cat socialization; training to become electricians and plumbers; and eventually a farm where inmates can grow food and prepare for careers in agriculture, according to Brown.

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.

Friends and family members of incarcerated individuals are encouraged to check sbsheriff.org and follow the "Who's In Custody" link to determine if their friend or family member has been moved to the Northern Branch Jail.

Inmate visitations have been suspended indefinitely at both the Main and Northern Branch jails due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to Zick.