Douglas County Jail expansion plans shared; cost estimated at $30 million

County Administrator Craig Weinaug answers questions during a town hall meeting discussing the expansion of the jail on Monday evening in the County Commission meeting room on the second floor of the Douglas County Courthouse, 111 E. 11th St.

An expansion of the Douglas County Jail that would serve the county needs for the next 20 years would cost about $30 million, it was revealed Monday at a town hall meeting.

Dan Rowe of Treanor Architects also shared the first schematic designs of the expansion at the meeting in the Douglas County Courthouse. Two primary goals of the expansion are to address increases in mentally ill and women populations the jail has experienced since it opened in 1999.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug provided the “about $30 million” construction estimate after the meeting. The expansion would add 120 beds to the existing 187-bed facility.

Current crowding at the jail and the mixing of different populations limits the ability of county or Bert Nash Community Health Center staffers from providing the re-entry programs and classes to all who could benefit from them, correctional officers said at the meeting.

The plans Rowe shared Monday build on the jail’s current design, which has different pods to segregate different classifications of prisoners.

At a town hall meeting Monday, Treanor Architects shared this footprint of a pod for inmates with mental health concerns proposed to be part of an expansion of the Douglas County Jail. The design reflects the influence of a September fact-finding trip county officials and community leaders made to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where it was learned special-needs inmates respond favorably to natural light and fresh air.

The pods added with the proposed expansion would include:

• A classification “pod” for newly incarcerated inmates, which would allow correction officers to observe inmates for 72 hours before assigning them in the appropriate populations. Although the sexes would be segregated, the pod would house 28 male and 14 females inmates.

• Mental health pods for 28 male and 14 female inmates.

• The addition of side-by-side male and female re-entry pods with rooms or counseling and classes. The pods would be built off the relocated male minimum-security pods. It would add 28 re-entry beds for men and 14 for women.

Rowe also revealed plans to repurpose existing jail space that would become available with the expansion. The male minimum-security population would be moved to the first-floor pod that now houses the male re-entry and work-release programs. The current male minimum-security pod would be repurposed for female minimum security.

The footprint of a minimum-security wing, which would house the Douglas County Jail's re-entry program, was shared at a town hall meeting Monday at the Douglas County Courthouse. Representatives from Treanor Architects shared the designs and the first cost estimate of the jail expansion.

The pod that now houses the entire female population would be divided into female maximum-security and medium-security pods, Rowe said.

The male maximum-security pod would gain the 14 beds currently used to house those male inmates with serious mental illness, Rowe said.

Current mental health beds are in 8-by-10-foot concrete cells in which inmates are exposed to the jail’s constant noise, Rowe said. The new mental-health pod would have a more isolated first-floor location and provide inmates access to natural light and open-air courtyards. Both elements have been found to be therapeutic for patients with mental health issues, he said.

Although Monday’s meeting focused on the jail expansion, commissioners reminded those in attendance the 15-month effort to produce a new jail design was done in conjunction with an effort to address county mental health issues through a crisis intervention center and mental health court, which would consider alternative placements for those taken into custody.

During the citizen question-and-answer session, Benet Magnuson questioned that approach, maintaining that the public was supportive of a crisis intervention center but not the jail expansion. The commission was holding mental health hostage to gain votes for a referendum to finance the jail, he said.

Commissioners responded that no decision yet had been made on a financing mechanism for the jail or the language of a referendum. They did, however, defend the coupling of the crisis intervention center and the jail expansion and the effort to address both needs.

“I would hope that our community would be just as concerned about the health and well-being of everybody in that jail as they are about those with mental health issues,” Commissioner Nancy Thellman said.