Sheriff’s Office exploring modular units as stopgap solution to Douglas County Jail overcrowding

Douglas County Jail

Undersheriff Gary Bunting is considering a temporary solution to overcrowding in the Douglas County Jail that’s reminiscent of how school districts have long dealt with classroom overcrowding.

When faced with a shortage of classrooms and no funds for immediate construction, school districts often have resorted to doublewide modular units as a temporary fix.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office may be in the same boat. The jail has more inmates than its 186 beds can accommodate and is forced to farm out as many as 60 inmates a day to the jails of other counties at a cost, in 2016, of $1.2 million.

Completion of any jail expansion is at least three years away even if county voters approve a bond issue to fund such a project in 2018, said Bunting, who oversees the county jail. That has prompted the sheriff’s office to explore some kind of free-standing temporary cell block as the only way to increase on-site capacity.

“It’s something we are just starting to look at,” he said. “We can’t put another bunk in our existing cells. The architects say there’s not enough room.”

Jeff Lane, a principal with Treanor Architects who designed the current jail and is working on designs for the expansion, said cells for male inmates in the county jail were designed to have 35 square feet of unencumbered space, which is the minimum the American Correctional Association requires for a single-bunk cell.

There are other reasons double-bunking is not workable, Bunting said. With stacked bunk-bed arrangements, the top bed would obscure windows that give correctional officers a view into cells, he said, and placing a bunk on the floor of a cell is an unsanitary option because it would force an inmate to sleep next to a toilet.

Numbers Bunting shared with the Douglas County Commission earlier this month show that despite the out-of-county placements and successful diversion of 57 inmates from the jail through the pretrial release program started this year, there have been days in recent months when the sheriff’s office had more inmates in the jail than its 186-inmate capacity. On such days, the sheriff’s office has been forced to place inmates in laundry rooms and rooms reserved for programming, Bunting said. The use of programming rooms for inmate housing was threatening to curtail the rehabilitation programming offered at the jail, he said.

Building business

Douglas County is not the only jurisdiction with a jail overcrowding problem.

Anthony Kelly said he and his brother,Timothy Kelly, saw the space needs of many jails and responded by expanding their Seymour, Mo., business, which builds modular kitchens, sleeping quarters, restrooms, showers and other facilities for disaster relief.

“We’ve had a presence at every U.S. hurricane response since 2007,” Anthony Kelly said.

The brothers’ new venture, All Detainment Solutions, builds modular jail cells and related facilities, including showers and kitchens, Kelly said.

“We didn’t know if it would work, but we decided to shop it around,” Kelly said. “If counties are willing to think outside the box a little bit, they can save a lot of money.”

One potential customer interested in doing just that was right down the road in Springfield, Mo., where the Greene County Sheriff’s Office faced the same situation confronting Douglas County, Kelly said. With the Greene County Jail beyond capacity, the sheriff’s office was farming out 100 inmates to other counties at the average cost of $54 a day per inmate, he said. His company and the Greene County Sheriff’s Office negotiated an agreement that had All Detainment Solutions build three 53-foot-long stainless-steel units that look like semitrailers. The units are now in use in the county jail’s parking lot, Kelly said. All three units were designed by architects and built to code, he said.

The units Greene County is leasing at $22 per inmate per day provide an additional 108 bunks, showers, a common area and a recreation yard, Kelly said. Although Greene County voters approved funding for a jail expansion earlier this month, the units will remain in the jail’s parking lot for at least two years, he said.

His phone has been busy since the Greene County modulars became operational Nov. 1 as other jurisdictions needing more jail capacity made inquiries, Kelly said. One potential customer was the Kansas Department of Corrections, which is exploring adding 500 to 700 beds, he said.

More study needed

Douglas County hasn’t called All Detainment Solutions, although Bunting said he was aware of the Greene County Jail modulars and has viewed photographs of them. The Sheriff’s Office would have to study how such a solution would work for its needs. The units’ design, cost and security would be concerns, he said.

Any temporary solutions would not be as secure as the county jail and would likely have to be surrounded with fencing and wire, Bunting said. The open bunking arrangement of the Greene County modular cell block would limit its use to work-release and minimum-security inmates, he said.

Bunting said other counties charge from $35 to $92 a day to house a Douglas County inmate. The cost of transporting inmates to and from out-of-county jails adds to that daily cost.

A temporary facility like that in Greene County, Mo., would probably require staffing of at least two more correctional officers per shift, or the addition of 11 new officers, he said. The annual base cost for a newly hired corrections officer is $34,704, he said.

Although the sheriff’s office was only starting to look at temporary jail structures and the questions involved, the need for some kind of stopgap fix may be inevitable, Bunting said.

“Three years,” he said. “That’s what I’m afraid of. We are already reaching the point where we don’t have space to put anybody. In three years, I don’t know how we can avoid doing (modulars).”