County Commission directs staff, sheriff’s office to develop $3 million jail expansion plan

photo by: Mike Yoder

Douglas County Jail

The Douglas County Commission has directed administrative staff and sheriff’s office personnel to develop a plan on how to use the $3 million available in the county’s 2019 budget to add capacity at the county jail.

Commissioners decided that building an addition to the jail was the best solution after a presentation Wednesday from Undersheriff Gary Bunting, who recommended against two other options to ease overcrowding at the jail — installing temporary modular cells or adding a second bunk to each of the jail’s single-occupancy cells.

The county continues to place 50 to 60 inmates a day in the jails of other counties at the cost of $1.5 million annually, Bunting said. It is a challenge to find places to send these inmates, he said, and on Sept. 18 the jail had to make room for a record 200 inmates, well beyond its 186-bed capacity, by placing inmates in rooms designed for programming.

Bunting told commissioners that modular units and double bunking were unacceptable solutions to overcrowding. The existing cells for male inmates were designed with 35 square feet of unencumbered space, which is the minimum the American Correctional Association recommends for a single inmate. Adding a second bunk in the confined space would create stress and increase opportunities for inmate-on-inmate violence, he said.

The sheriff’s office reviewed proposals from three firms offering temporary modular units, Bunting said. They all had higher annual operational costs than what the county is currently spending for out-of-county inmate housing. Installing a modular unit would cost the county $1.25 million to $1.42 million up front, and the annual operational cost of each unit would be from $1.7 to $2.4 million, Bunting said.

In addition, the modular units wouldn’t allow correctional officers to directly observe inmates as they can in the jail and would provide no indoor recreational areas, Bunting said. They also would be less secure than the brick-and-mortar jail, he said.

Bunting proposed that jail staff should meet with county administration to determine what additional capacity could be built with the $3 million the County Commission set aside in the 2019 budget to address jail overcrowding.

The commission agreed to that plan and directed Assistant County Administrator Sarah Plinsky to work with the sheriff’s office to develop a design to present the County Commission later this fall.

At Commissioner Mike Gaughan’s suggestion, Bunting agreed the sheriff’s office would prioritize work release and re-entry cell pods, such as those included in the $44 million jail expansion design county voters rejected in May with the defeat of Proposition 1. Those dormitory-like pods were less expensive than the single-cell pod designs for minimum, medium and maximum security, Gaughan said.

Commissioners also discussed the idea of repurposing unused parts of the county juvenile justice facility to house adults. That facility is housing fewer inmates as a result of state juvenile justice reform, the Journal-World previously reported. However, the commission also agreed the county shouldn’t rush into any decision about the juvenile facility until it was clear what the Kansas Legislature would do with juvenile justice reform in the near term.

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