CV Journalism Collaborative
After a decade of planning, work is finally underway on the much-anticipated expansion of Merced County’s John Latorraca Correctional Center, which officials say will improve public safety and offer better educational and rehabilitation services for inmates.
Officials from the Merced County Sheriff’s Office and the county Board of Supervisors marked the start of the two-phase project during a ceremony Tuesday afternoon at the facility, located about seven miles southwest of Merced, off Sandy Mush Road.
Both phases together are expected to cost more than $138.5 million and be completed by June 2026. The work includes renovation of existing buildings as well as construction of new structures.
The highlight of the project is a 256-bed facility to replace the 55-year-old Main Jail in downtown Merced, where some of the county’s most dangerous inmates are currently held.
“It’s long overdue in Merced County,” said Capt. Greg Sullivan of the Merced County Sheriff’s Office, who spearheaded the project and watched its progression over the years.
One of the key features of the first phase will be a new mental health building, Sullivan said.
“We’re getting tons of individuals who have mental health issues,” Sullivan explained.
The project will also include eight classrooms to provide inmates with skills they could use after release. Right now, the Latorraca Center has only two classrooms, while the downtown Main Jail has none.
“We’re going to be able to do GED-type training, we’re going to be able to offer a lot of courses to help them when they get out of here and become employable,” Sullivan said.
The first phase will also include four renovated dormitory buildings, a new kitchen and laundry building, a new administration building and a new medical clinic and dental suite.
The second phase of the project will build the new facility to replace the Main Jail. It will include five housing units consisting of a 64-bed unit for women, two 64-bed units for men, and two 32-bed units for men. There also will be a new control center and new staff and medical offices.
Plus, a new Sheriff’s Operations Complex will be built at Castle Commerce Center, a $28 million project. County officials are still looking to determine where that will be built on the former Air Force base.
The estimated cost of the project has increased significantly since planning first began due to changes in the project, inflation and rising construction expenses associated with the COVID pandemic, among other things, Sullivan said.
In 2015, much of the project cost was expected to be covered by an allocation of $40 million from the Board of State and Community Corrections and around $4.5 million from Merced County, said Sheriff Vern Warnke.
Now, the Phase 1 work alone is expected to cost $77.5 million, with another $61 million for Phase 2. The new 256-bed jail facility is being totally funded by Merced County, Sullivan said.
Work on the remodel and expansion is being led by Sletten Construction.
Planning for the jail project began in 2013, but the state initially rejected Merced County’s proposal for funding, according to a 2019 investigation conducted by The Sacramento Bee and ProPublica, titled “Deadly Delays in Jailhouse Construction Cost Lives and Dollars Across California.”
The county was informed in a rejection letter that its proposal was ranked next-to-last among 11 medium-sized counties vying for funds to update their jails. Evaluators said the county’s proposal didn’t include documents indicating the requisite matching funds.
The ProPublica report also noted many problems with the Main Jail in downtown Merced, saying grand juries had reported it was run down and unsafe for both staff and inmates, with one inspector noting the county needed to actively pursue building a new facility.
In 2021, six men escaped from the Main Jail in a coordinated effort that underscored its security weaknesses. The men were all later captured, as was one inmate who escaped from the Latorraca Center in a separate incident that year.
Sheriff Warnke said the Latorraca Center wasn’t designed to hold hardened criminals when it opened in 1990. Some parts of the jail were made with drywall, which inmates could easily break through.
He said in recent years security improvements have been made.
“(The Latorraca Center) was built like a school because the construction company back at that time was a school construction company,” Warnke said. “So we had to harden (the walls) several times and make repairs several times. The constant repairs have just been a nightmare.”
“(The new jail facility) is going to be a benefit to the community because it obviously takes the chances of escapes down, and that’s what we want,” Warnke said. “And it also protects the correctional officers. That’s my first priority – protecting the correctional officers.”
— Victor A. Patton is the engagement editor for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.