Douglas County commissioners confident of voter buy-in on jail expansion plan

Douglas County Jail

Douglas County commissioners say they are confident they can sell to voters the $44 million plan they approved last month to expand the county jail.

Commissioners ended more than four years of discussion when on Nov. 29 they agreed to advance the design that would add 179 beds to the 186-bed county jail. The $44 million design was one of six options that Treanor Architects developed with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. The options ranged from a $37.4 million design that would have added 131 beds to a $46 million plan that would have provided an additional 207 beds.

Douglas County voters will be asked sometime in 2018 to approve a bond issue to fund the chosen expansion plan.

“I’m actually looking forward to campaigning for this expansion,” Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman said. “It’s a good conversation for the community to have, and now is the time for it.”

As they anticipated the campaign for the expansion, Thellman and fellow commissioners Michelle Derusseau and Mike Gaughan said they would emphasize the design’s ability to address existing needs, the flexibility it provides to meet future demands, the environment it affords all inmates with mental health concerns and the opportunity it furnishes to bring back county inmates from out-of-county placements so they can take advantage of the jail’s re-entry program.

Justice Matters, a local faith-based activist group that has opposed expansion of the county jail in the past, is studying the current plan before announcing a position on any referendum put before voters, said Ben MacConnell, Justice Matters lead organizer.

“We’re not at the position to oppose the jail expansion right now,” he said. “In the future, we will research if there is a necessity of this significant of a jail expansion.”

Derusseau said commissioners could take the approved design to voters with the confidence it would fully meet current needs.

“I wanted to make sure we had addressed everything,” she said. “I didn’t want to start in the hole.”

That would not have been the case with the options estimated to cost less than the selected design, according to numbers that Douglas County Undersheriff Gary Bunting shared Nov. 29 with commissioners. The jail was already exceeding the capacity of the additional beds those designs would provide in some classification categories, he said.

The design commissioners unanimously selected was a modified version of the $46 million plan. Among the features of both designs is a two-story addition to be built off the rear of the jail’s central entrance hub.

The new addition’s bottom floor is to have two sections that are identical to the existing incarceration pods at the jail. In the $46 million design, one of those areas was to be left as an empty, undeveloped “shell” with the expectation it would be built out with cells when more beds were needed. The design that commissioners ultimately selected saves $2 million in construction costs by leaving the second bottom-floor area in the new addition as an undeveloped shell space, as well.

Derusseau said that decision gave the design greater flexibility.

“I think the added shell space gives us more options to address future needs,” she said. “That doesn’t have to be just more beds. With that shell, we can build it out for future inmate programming rooms or other things we’ll need down the road.”

The appeal of the design for Thellman was that it provided equal treatment for male and female inmates with mental health issues. The selected design will have male and female special-management pods with access to direct sunlight and green space, which would accommodate 10 women and 28 men. Although all options shared last month with commissioners included a 28-bed male pod with those therapeutic features, the less expensive designs would have placed special-management female inmates on the bottom level of a pod that housed female maximum-security inmates on its more secure upper level.

The addition of a 10-bed female special-management pod in the selected design has the added bonus of improving the jail’s environment for all minimum-security female inmates, Gaughan said. With its inclusion, female medium-security inmates would be housed on the bottom level of the pod, which also houses maximum-security female inmates on its upper level. Female minimum-security inmates will be housed in a separate 28-bed pod.

“That’s a key thing and important to me,” Gaughan said. “One of the things we’ve learned is minimum-security population folks reintegrate into the community and connect to jail programming better if we keep them isolated from higher classification inmates. It gives them a better environment and a better chance of reintegration once they are released.”

With the jail’s current overcrowding, the sheriff’s office is forced to place some maximum-security male inmates in the medium-security pods and male medium-security inmates in minimum-security housing, Bunting told commissioners last month.

The selected design would address that by adding 46 male minimum-security beds, 28 male medium-security beds and 14-male maximum security beds. It would also add classification pods that would house 28 men and 14 women. Classification pods, which are common features in modern jails, provide cells where newly incarcerated inmates can be observed for 72 hours before being assigned appropriate security levels.

Another selling point for the expansion is that it would allow the county to stop sending inmates to jails in other counties, which costs about $1.3 million a year. Mike Brouwer, director of the jail’s re-entry program, said the inmates sent to other counties are lower-level offenders who are eligible for the jail’s re-entry programming, which is designed to help them reintegrate into society and remain law-abiding.

In remarks last month to commissioners, Brouwer said inmates who were sent to other counties due to overcrowding were returning with worse attitudes because of the absence of programming and the influence of career criminals whom they mix with during out-of-county incarceration.

Jail overcrowding creates a human cost to inmates, their families and ultimately to all county residents when inmates fail to benefit from jail programming, Thellman said.

“I want to keep the focus on the human cost of doing nothing,” she said. “There is a human cost of having our inmates located all over the state where they can’t see their families and take advantage of programing offered at the jail designed to help them avoid legal problems in the future. We really do have stories of folks who have been farmed out in the middle of their re-entry classes to spend months in other jails and come back different than the way they left. They are changed.”

Overcrowding at the jail has also been eroding the re-entry program’s effectiveness because the sheriff’s office has been forced to house inmates in re-entry classrooms, Bunting told commissioners last month.

“It’s a big step backwards,” Thellman said. “The re-entry program is virtually dead right now because they have had to stop using classrooms that have mattresses on the floor.”

The campaign for a jail expansion will focus on more than just the need for more beds, commissioners said. It will also be an opportunity to educate the public about initiatives to divert inmates from the county jail, such as the Behavioral Health Court, the pretrial diversion program that has released about 60 inmates from the jail who could not afford bond, and the post-sentencing home-arrest program, they said.

“People talk about mass incarceration, but we don’t have mass incarceration in Douglas County,” Thellman said. “We have the lowest incarceration rate in the state, and that is because of the work of the sheriff’s office and our partners at the jail.”

The timing of a bond referendum for the jail’s expansion is dependent on a bond issue that would fund a mental health crisis intervention center. Although the current County Commission has not committed to putting both facilities on the same referendum, the question of how they would be funded has to be addressed before any ballot question is approved because the jail and crisis center could tap into the same funding source.

The county has the authority to ask voters for either a quarter- or half-cent sales tax for the jail expansion, crisis intervention center and mental health programming. A quarter-cent tax would provide $4.86 million annually to help retire debt from mental health services or the construction of either facility, while a half-cent tax would provide $9.72 million annually.

Regardless of its position on the county jail expansion, Justice Matters was opposed to placing the crisis center and jail expansion on the same bond referendum ballot, MacConnell said. Voters should be allowed to consider the merits of both proposals on an individual basis, he said.

Justice Matters also opposed placing the two initiatives on a single referendum because that would send the message that mental illness was linked to the criminal justice system, MacConnell said.

“That’s an implied insult to those with mental illness,” he said.