Douglas County Jail expansion plans, cost estimates to be shared at Monday town hall meeting

Douglas County Jail

Douglas County residents will have their first opportunity Monday to see what a proposed 120-bed expansion of the county jail would look like.

The county will host its sixth town hall meeting on the expansion of the jail at 6 p.m. Monday in the second-floor commission meeting room of the Douglas County Courthouse, 111 E. 11th St.

Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug and Sheriff Ken McGovern said representatives with Treanor Architects will present schematic designs at the meeting. Those attending the 90-minute session can expect to see a proposed footprint of the expansion and renderings of interior and exterior details.

Public comment would be welcome so designs can be further refined as the county and Treanor work to develop final bid-ready plans, Weinaug said.

Another significant first-time development shared at the meeting will be a cost range for the expansion, Weinaug said.

The proposed expansion would add about 120 beds to the existing 186-bed facility that opened in 1999. However, Weinaug and McGovern said the intention of the expansion was not to incarcerate a greater number of prisoners. Rather, the goal is to provide environments that allow the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and its partners to more effectively deal with the county’s inmate population so that inmates are less likely to have future brushes with the law.

“This county has a history of incarcerating people at a lower rate than any county in Kansas,” Weinaug said, allowing that neighboring Johnson County had a similar low rate. “Counties of any size in Kansas have double or triple the incarceration rate we have.”

The credit, Weinaug said, should go to the sheriff’s office and the county’s partners who provide a range of programs meant to help inmates overcome problems. Those include substance-abuse and anger-management counseling, parenting classes, courses that allow inmates to get GEDs or high school diplomas and a wide range of mental health programs.

But crowding has led to less effective use of jail space and the forced mixing of special-needs inmates — such as those with mental health issues — with other populations. Crowding has also led to the need to house from 60 to 70 inmates in other counties, costing the county tens of thousands dollars a month and decreasing the effectiveness of the jail’s programs, McGovern said.

The concept of planning jails to help with the rehabilitation of inmates is not new, and it was incorporated into the design of the current jail. That design, like that of all modern jails, has different pods to segregate different classifications of prisoners. The most obvious segregation is the separation of male and female prisoners, but McGovern said the county jail also segregates male prisoners into five categories based on their criminal history and behavior.

The problem is not only an increase in the jail’s population in the past 17 years, but that the nature of its inmate population has also changed, McGovern said.

The schematics shared at the meeting will illustrate proposed solutions for two significant population changes much discussed at past town hall meetings: the increase in the number of female inmates and those with mental health issues.

McGovern said when the jail opened, it had an average of 11 female inmates a day for the 24 beds available. The daily count of female inmates now numbers “40 and up,” he said. There also has been an increase in the number of women arrested for serious or violent crimes, which has created the need for the same kind of segregation by criminal history as exists among the male population.

Another significant demographic change has been the growth in the number of inmates with mental health issues, McGovern said. About 17 percent of the jail’s inmates have serious mental illness, a percentage that increases to 30 percent among the jail’s female population, he said.

Strategies with the twin goals of reducing the number of inmates with mental health issues in the county jail and providing access to appropriate and alternate mental health care treatment options have been part of jail expansion discussions from the start. The most noteworthy idea stemming from those discussions has been a crisis intervention center. The Douglas County Commission and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center have entered into a memorandum of understanding that would have the county build such a facility on land Bert Nash owns north of Second Street, near the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.

A crisis center and other steps, such as training law enforcement officers to manage incidents with people in crisis in a way that doesn’t lead to an arrest, won’t eliminate the need to house in the county jail violent inmates with mental illness or those thought to be a flight risk, McGovern said. The goal is to house them in an environment where they can get better, and not among general populations as they are now, he said.

One response to the mental health issues the county jail and justice system are encountering was fact-finding tours by a group of county leaders and stakeholders in the last year to study successful programs and facilities in other jurisdictions. Particularly instructive was a September visit to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., Weinaug said.

One thing learned from that visit was inmates with mental illness respond better to environments with light and fresh air, Weinaug said. Architectural renderings to be shared Monday of the mental illness pod will reflect those insights, he said.

Another need the expansion would address is an intake pod, which would house newly incarcerated male prisoners until they are assigned to one of the other five levels, McGovern said. Currently in all but obvious cases, newly incarcerated male prisoners are placed in the jail’s midlevel pod and, based on correctional staff’s observations, move up, down or stay in that initial classification.

Although Monday’s meeting with its schematic design presentation is an important step, it won’t be the end of the process of developing the jail’s design and what will most likely be a countywide referendum on a proposal to build and pay for the expansion and crisis intervention center.

?”Monday’s meeting will help give commissioners and the public the information needed to make decisions on the future of the jail,” McGovern said.