Calif. county breaks ground on new corrections complex
The multiple phase $77M project includes housing renovations, a new intake and booking facility, and staff locker rooms and meeting facilities
By Andrew Kuhn
MERCED, Calif. — Merced County law enforcement officials, state corrections personnel and local leaders gathered to break ground on a construction project at the John Latorraca Correctional Center off of Sandy Mush Road in Merced County.
Planning for the two phase project began in 2013, and in 2015 the County of Merced was awarded $40M for the renovation of the correctional center by the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) under Senate Bill 863.
According to Merced County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Michelle Oliver, the county will fund the remaining cost of phase one, bringing the project’s total cost to about $77M. Project construction began in April of this year and is expected to be completed by June, 2026.
The first phase of the project will consist of four renovated dormitory-style buildings, a programming building with eight classrooms with video court capability and staff workspace, recreation yards attached to the dormitories allowing additional recreation time.
The project also calls for a new intake and booking facility, laundry building, a new administration building with in-person and video visitation, staff locker rooms and meeting facilities, medical clinic and dental suite. The project will also include a new 30-bed medical and mental health building and a mental health facility in an effort to avoid sending individuals to state hospitals.
Additionally, phase one of the project will include new facility generators, parking lots, underground utilities and security fencing.
According to Oliver, work on phase one has already begun which includes underground work and the breaking down of certain buildings.
The second phase involves construction of a 256-bed jail facility next to the existing John Latorraca Correctional Center and will replace the existing downtown jail facility currently located at 700 W. 22nd Street. The new jail facility will be funded by the county for $61 million, according to Oliver.
Upon completion of the 256-bed facility, the downtown jail will be removed and plans call for a $28 million Sheriff’s Operation complex, which will be located on the grounds of the former Castle Air Force Base, according to the sheriff’s office.
Oliver said the Merced County Sheriff’s Office has been outgrowing its current facilities for some time and there is excitement with construction beginning on both phases.
“I think that anytime that we are doing a facility like this, the goal is rehabilitation. The goal is to make sure that we have mental health services. Everything that anybody might need,” said Oliver. “So for us, a build of this magnitude is really important for our community.”
Merced County Board of Supervisors Chair Scott Silveira spoke during the ceremony and thanked taxpayers for the amount of funding that went toward the jail renovations.
“It is no small task when you put this kind of funding into a facility that is much needed and is well overdue,” Silveira said.
According to Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke, the current John Latorraca Correction Center facility wasn’t designed to house hardened criminals when construction was completed in 1990. Warnke said drywall was used in construction for the facility which proved problematic inside the dorms housing inmates.
“The inmates would actually break through the walls to get to the other side to fight with the other inmates,” Warnke said. “So we’ve had to harden several times, repair several times — the constant repairs have just been a nightmare.”
Warnke said being able to build a hardened facility will be a great benefit to the community and lower the chances of escapes, as well as protect the correction officers.
In January of 2021, six inmates escaped from the downtown facility after breaking out of a gang housing unit inside the jail. According to authorities, the inmates gained access to the roof of the jail where they used a handcrafted rope to scale down the side of the building.
With the help of the U.S. Marshals Service, the inmates were eventually captured with authorities apprehending the last two of the escapees in May of 2021. At the time, Warnke said the sheriff’s office was having to continually fix and repair different things at the antiquated facility that wasn’t intended to house those types of inmates.
According to Warnke, the new 256-bed facility will eventually house what he described as hardened criminals, currently housed at the Main Jail facility downtown, making it tougher for them to escape.
“It doesn’t mean they’re not going to try — they probably will,” said Warnke. “Is it escape proof? No, nothing is.”
According to Warnke, all inmates in the county will eventually be housed at the John Latorraca Correctional Center including the new facilities which he said will include better conditions not only for the correctional officers, but for the inmates as well.
This story was originally published September 20, 2023, 2:43 PM.
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