Stanislaus County Honor Farm inmates will not be home for Christmas despite efforts to get out of jail early by setting two small fires within the past week at the minimum-security facility east of Grayson, according to Sheriff Adam Christianson.
Inmates set the fires Saturday, Nov. 17, and Monday evening, Nov. 19, by punching a hole in the bathroom ceiling and stuffing combustible materials, such as paper napkins, into a hole in the ceiling of the Honor Farm’s barracks, Christianson said. The fires were quickly extinguished by sheriff’s staff and firefighters, but they still forced the temporary evacuation of inmates into the kitchen.
“Both of these are intentional acts,” Christianson said Tuesday, Nov. 20. “We’ve learned from the intelligence information we have gathered that they decided that if they burned down Barracks 3, the Honor Farm would have to release people from facility, and they could go home for holidays.”
Christianson stressed that was not the case.
There are no suspects regarding either of the fires, and Christianson said he did not expect that inmates would “rat each other out.” However, the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department has learned from interviews with inmates that the fires were intentional, he said.
Saturday’s fire took place in the late afternoon, while Monday’s incident took place at about 10 p.m. In both instances, engines from Wesport Fire Department and the West Stanislaus County Fire Protection District among other departments responded to the fires, which smoldered in the attic of the barracks.
The sheriff’s department has responded to both incidents by switching around the people with whom inmates are housed and by engaging in undisclosed “operational tactics,” Christianson said.
“We want to keep inmates on their toes,” Christianson said. “We want to move them around so they understand this is unacceptable behavior.”
He noted that the Honor Farm is built out of wood, not out of concrete and steel like a typical jail. The county plans to close the facility in September 2013 and to move its inmates to a new 192-bed facility that is under construction on Hackett Road in Modesto, replacing beds lost to a fire at the Honor Farm in 2010.
In the meantime, Christianson said the sheriff’s department is challenged with housing state prison inmates after the passage of Assembly Bill 109. The law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2010, allows some convicts — excluding violent criminals and sex offenders — to serve their sentences in county facilities instead of state prisons.
Since its passage, Honor Farm staff has dealt with a couple of escapes from inmates awaiting sentencing, including Joshua Best, 24, and James Leigh, 27, who made an elaborately planned escape by using a rope made out of bed sheets on Aug. 14 or 15.
Best was later captured Sept. 11 by the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force on the 1800 block of Orange Avenue in rural Patterson, while Leigh was captured in the Riverbank area that same day.
“The honor farm was never designed or intended to house prison inmates,” Christianson said. “They are there because they are unsentenced and waiting for due process trial.”
Despite the challenges facing Honor Farm staff, Christianson gave them kudos this week, saying they were effective in helping extinguish the two fires and moving inmates out of the barracks.
“I am very proud of our staff,” Christianson said. “They have been working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.”
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