What you will see and hear on a Douglas County Jail tour

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

If you plan to go on one of the public tours of the Douglas County Jail, you’ll likely hear Undersheriff Gary Bunting talk about how the jail has become a crowded and more dangerous place. That was the message about 15 people who took a recent Saturday morning tour heard.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has been offering two-hour jail tours at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturdays for the last month and will continue the tours through April 28. The tours are being offered in advance of the mail-ballot referendum on the county’s request for an additional half-cent of sales tax authority. The sales tax is expected to raise $9.8 million in revenue, which would fund the proposed $44 million county jail expansion, an $11 million behavioral health campus and $5.1 million annually for expanded behavioral health services. It would also provide about $1 million of the $6.1 million in added operational costs needed when the jail expansion is completed, which is expected to take about three years.

The recent Saturday tour included a presentation from Bunting, who provided statistics on who is in the jail and the consequences of that population on the jail’s operations, as well as a walk-through tour of the jail.

Although overall bookings have declined in recent years, the jail started to regularly exceed its 186-bed capacity in mid-2015, Bunting said. It now is forced to “farm out” from 50 to 80 inmates daily in out-of-county jails at a cost to the county of $1.3 million a year.

Bunting provided the tour visitors a snapshot of the jail’s census on March 4. There were 214 inmates in jail that day, which was about 20 inmates below this year’s daily average. Of those, 171 were in jail because of felony crimes and 43 inmates for misdemeanor offenses.

That reflects an increase in serious felony crimes that Sheriff Ken McGovern and District Attorney Charles Branson have said is occurring in the county. Bunting said the increase in inmates incarcerated for serious crimes, who tend to be in jail longer because their legal proceedings take more time, has kept the jail’s daily population above capacity. This is despite the introduction of the behavioral health court, pretrial release program and home-arrest option, which have diverted 150 inmates charged with misdemeanor crimes from jail, Bunting told those taking the tour. Of the 43 misdemeanor inmates incarcerated March 2, the census showed 12 were in jail awaiting trial and three of those were released that day.

The misdemeanor or lower-level felony offenders are prime candidates to be farmed out, because other counties won’t take high-risk inmates, said Mike Brouwer, director of the jail’s re-entry program. That is making the re-entry program less effective because the lower-level inmates who benefit most from its classes now spend much of their time in out-of-county jails, he said.

The jail’s single female 28-bed pod requires minimum-security inmates be housed with medium- and maximum-security inmates, Bunting said. That greatly restricts the amount of time inmates can spend out of their cells because the staff doesn’t allow different inmates of different classifications to be in common areas at the same time. The jail is also housing female inmates on cots in laundry areas because of overcrowding, he said.

The proposed jail project is a combination of new construction and expansion. For example, a current 28-bed male minimum-security pod would be repurposed for a 28-bed female medium- and maximum-security pod. The mix of new construction and reuse of current space also will add 46 male minimum-security beds, 28 male medium-security beds and 14 male maximum-security beds.

Among the new construction features are:

— A 28-bed male and 14-bed female work release, re-entry pod. There will be 18 fewer beds for male inmates in the pod than currently available at the jail.

— A preclassification pod with 28 male beds and 14 female beds, in which newly admitted inmates would be observed for 72 hours before being assigned to minimum , medium or maximum security.

— A special needs pod for inmates with mental illness or special circumstance that prevent them from being housed with the general population. It will provide a net gain of 14 special-population beds each for male and female inmates. It would have calming features, such as access to direct sunlight and green space.

The tour didn’t allow visitors to directly enter any of the pods, although the visitors were allowed in the correctional officers’ observation room of the male maximum-security/special population pod. Brouwer said lights were kept dim in the pod so that the inmates could not see when the two correctional officers were absent from the observation room for other duties and so that they could not see and communicate with any of their co-defendants housed in the pod. It was a grim environment for the inmates with mental illness housed in the pod, he said.

Other stops included the jail’s library at which all inmates are given weekly access during which they can check out three books, the medical pod, the booking room and a classroom where some of the 57 programs offered at the jail are taught.

By law, the tour must be an informational session rather than a campaign event aimed at trying to get people to support the upcoming sales tax election. But the campaign for the sales tax is a sharply contested one. A vote yes group has emerged, highlighting many of the same points about overcrowding and fair treatment of inmates. A vote no group also has emerged that says the county doesn’t have an adequate understanding of the causes behind the jail’s growing population, and believes the county could do more to prevent incarceration of some offenders.

Douglas County government referendum informational sessions

The Douglas County government has scheduled the following informational meetings.

• 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, Carnegie Building, 200 W. Ninth St.

• 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19, Sports Pavilion Lawrence, Champions room, 100 Rock Chalk Lane.

• 10 a.m. Saturday, April 21, Lecompton City Hall, 327 Elmore St.

• 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 24, Sports Pavilion Lawrence, Champions room, 100 Rock Chalk Lane.