Douglas County Sheriff’s Office recommends jail redesign that would more than double number of beds

Warning of overcrowding effects, sheriff backs most expensive option for expansion

Douglas County Jail

An official with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office urged Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday to move forward with the most expensive option for the expansion of the Douglas County Jail, warning them that overcrowding was threatening programs meant to help inmates.

At a work session that focused on the jail expansion, Undersheriff Gary Bunting said Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern was recommending that commissioners select the $46 million Plan A option for the project. That option would more than double the number of beds at the facility, adding 207 beds to the current 186.

But Commission Chair Mike Gaughan said the starting point for the new jail design was a future jail population study conducted by criminal justice consultant Allen Beck. That study was the basis for two alternative designs, which the commission has been collectively referring to as Plan B: one that would cost $37.4 million, and another that would cost $40.8 million. The less expensive version of Plan B would add 131 beds, while the more expensive version would add 150 beds.

Treanor Architects developed all three designs, which were first shared with the County Commission at a Sept. 20 work session.

Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said Plan A would require 100 additional employees at a cost of $6.4 million annually. Either version of Plan B would add 89 employees to the payroll at an annual cost of $5.3 million.

In making the case for Plan A, Bunting said inmate populations were already exceeding Beck’s future estimates on some days. On peak days, he said, the jail’s population is as high as 266 inmates, or the number of inmates Beck estimated the jail would have in 2029.

The county sends low-security inmates to the jails of other counties to relieve overcrowding, but eligible inmates often can’t be “farmed out” because of impending court dates, mental health issues, special medication needs or medical issues, Bunting said.

To find room, jail staff has been bunking inmates in commons areas, laundry rooms and rooms set aside for programming, Bunting said. The sheriff’s office may be forced to cut back on some of the 50 programs it provides at the jail because inmates are being housed in the areas where the programs would take place, he said.

Overcrowding is also causing safety concerns as the jail is forced to house dangerous inmates in pods meant for less dangerous offenders, Bunting said. The number of incidents in which deputies have called for assistance because of a physical altercation or the refusal of an inmate to comply with instructions has doubled since 2013, he said.

Bunting said another concern the sheriff’s office had with the Plan B designs is that neither would provide a separate pod for female inmates with mental illnesses. Those inmates would be housed with minimum-security women in the $37.4 million option, or at the bottom level of a pod that also houses maximum-security inmates on a secure top level in the $40.8 million option, he said.

Commissioners were concerned about the absence of a pod for female inmates with mental illnesses when the plans were first presented in September. On Wednesday, Gaughan asked for the Plan B designs to be modified to include such a pod. Bunting agreed to present a revision of the plans at the commission’s Nov. 29 meeting.

“We’re down to a few questions I have in terms of what the right configuration for the jail should be,” Gaughan said.

Should a jail design be approved, any action put before voters would have to wait until a design had been developed for a mental health crisis intervention center, Gaughan said. Although the current County Commission has not committed to putting both facilities on the same referendum, the question of how they would be funded has to be addressed before any ballot question is approved because they could tap into the same funding source, he said.

The county has the authority to ask voters for either a quarter- or half-cent sales tax for the jail expansion, crisis intervention center and mental health programming. A quarter-cent tax would provide $4.86 million annually to help retire debt from mental health services or the construction of either facility, while a half-cent tax would provide $9.72 million annually.