Undersheriff shares preliminary plans that would add a minimum of 84 beds to county jail
photo by: Mike Yoder
Undersheriff Gary Bunting and Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky presented on Wednesday the Douglas County Commission jail expansion options that would add from 84 to 154 beds to the facility.
Bunting and Plinsky said the options, which were shared without cost estimates, realized commissioners’ requested goals that plans for an expansion provide sustainable solutions that would allow the county to stop housing 50 to 80 inmates in the jails of other counties, provide adequate space for the jail’s work-release and re-entry programs and enough beds to separate inmates of different security classifications.
Central to the options Bunting presented would be the construction of a central south tower, which would replicate the two that bookend the jail. The tower would add 50,195 square feet of new space and provide from three to four new incarceration pods that would each house 28 inmates. The $44 million jail expansion envisioned in Proposition 1, which county voters rejected in May, would have added 93,200 square feet in new jail space and added 178 beds.
The direction Bunting and Plinsky asked of commissioners was whether one of the tower’s four pods should be used for the classification pod, in which newly jailed inmates are observed for 72 hours before being assigned to minimum-, medium- or maximum-security pods, or a medical bay to supplement the current four-bed medical unit that is consistently overcrowded.
Also presented as an option in conjunction with the tower was a separate 9,345-square-foot “stepped-down” security unit to house minimum security inmates in the jail’s re-entry and work-release programs. Bunting said it could house 28 male and 14 female inmates. The unit also would provide space for re-entry programming and offices.
The new tower could realize the commissioners’ goals on its own, Bunting said. If the stepped-down security unit was built with it, the sheriff’s office could reuse a current 28-bed male minimum security pod as a pod for female inmates, he said.
Construction of the tower would be cheaper than much of the construction planned in Proposition 1 because it would be entirely new construction and not involve renovation of existing space, Bunting said.
Commissioner-elect, Patrick Kelly, who will replace Commissioner Mike Gaughan on the County Commission in January, sat in on the presentation and later discussion. He asked that Bunting and Plinsky provide figures on the numbers for inmates needing medical beds and the numbers of inmates being evaluated for classification.
Plinsky said she and Bunting would return with that information in late January, along with more details on the plan and cost estimates.
Twenty-five of the 26 residents who addressed the commission on the issue after the presentation spoke out against the jail expansion. A common theme was that voters had made clear their opinion in May when they rejected Proposition 1, and that a major expansion would be undemocratic.
“I have a hard time understanding why we are even here today,” said Catherine Allen, of Lawrence. “It feels like something we’ve already decided.”
Patrick Wilbur, of the taxpayer watchdog group Lawrence Sunset Alliance, said the use of temporary modular units for re-entry and work-release inmates would have been a reasonable response to the failure of Proposition 1. He objected to consideration of 1-cent sales tax revenue to debt finance a jail expansion because it would commit future County Commissions to paying off bonds and a jail expansion. He also said a jail expansion would require a property tax increase to pay for increased operational costs.
Anthony Boynton, of Lawrence, took issue with the “farmed out” phrase used to refer to inmates housed out of county, saying it is dehumanizing. The focus should be on the over-policing that fills the jail with people of color, and not on adding to the jail’s capacity, he said.