Douglas County considers jail expansion

Douglas County officials are considering ways to expand the county jail.

“We are starting to see the numbers of inmates go up and their needs are changing, so we have started looking at what we need to do to improve our facility,” Sheriff Ken McGovern said.

When the $22 million, 196-bed facility opened in September 1999, officials thought that by 2010, based on inmate projections, an expansion would be needed

But for several years, the inmate population lagged behind those projections.

The total number of bookings reached a high of 6,392 in 2006, then fell to 5,297 in 2012.

Now, however, the population is starting to increase again, especially within certain categories, which causes space management problems. For example, the building was originally designed to hold 24 female inmates at any one time.

Total bookings in the jail were up to 5,997 in 2013. Of those booked last year, 1,644 were female, compared with 1,366 in 2012.

This year, the county budgeted $100,000 to house excess Douglas County prisoners in other counties. Next year, the county has budgeted $250,000 due to the increasing inmate population and an increase in the daily incarceration charge from Johnson County.

No dollar figures for expansion have been mentioned, McGovern said. Right now, he said, officials want to work on what is needed and then figure out what it would cost.

Officials will discuss the jail expansion more at an Aug. 20 meeting of city, county and school district officials.

“We do intend to bring that up as something that the county will be doing in the next three years,” said County Administrator Craig Weinaug.

Any expansion would have to take into account the number of inmates needing mental health treatment, McGovern said. Last year, 37 percent of the people booked into the jail self-reported having a mental health issue, according to jail records.

The reduced availability of mental health beds at state facilities means more needs at the local level, he said, and that requires adjustments.

“It’s a strain on our staff because at times we are constantly watching and monitoring certain individuals, making sure they are medicated,” he said.

Incarcerating people with mental health problems includes devoting lots of staff time to closely observe inmates including watches for inmates deemed suicidal, McGovern said.

“That issue is very difficult, space-wise and staff-wise,” said Douglas County Commissioner Jim Flory. “The lack of state facilities has been exacerbated that recently,” he said.

Rick Cagan, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Kansas, said people with mental illness need treatment or their situation worsens. “If we ignore their mental health condition while they are in jail, then when they get out what are we left with? We’ll have a tougher job because pope are in worse shape than when they got in,” he said.