Double bunking not considered solution for Douglas County Jail overcrowding

Douglas County Jail

At one time the Wyandotte County Jail was in a situation similar to the one facing the Douglas County Jail. The facility was overcrowded and the county was spending millions of dollars to send inmates to other counties.

Wyandotte County, though, came up with a solution different than what is being considered in Douglas County: Put two inmates instead of one in a cell.

Jeff Fewell, warden of the Wyandotte County Jail, said county leadership decided that the way to address capacity issues was to convert all single-bunk cells to double-bunk cells. The conversions increased the jail’s capacity from the 306 beds the jail opened with in 1989 to the 512 beds it has now.

“At one time, we were farming out 200 inmates,” Fewell said. “We spent $32 million farming out inmates to other counties. We’re now bonding construction of a new juvenile detention center from the money we save from not sending inmates to other counties.”

Douglas County expects to spend from $1.3 million to $1.5 million this year to place overflow inmates in the jails of other counties as its population exceeds its 186-bed capacity.

Undersheriff Gary Bunting said all the jail’s male cells in minimum-, medium- and maximum-level pods were designed for single occupancy, using standards that the American Correctional Association developed. Cells for male inmates have less space than the ACA standard for double-bunk cells, which is 50 square feet of unimpeded space in which inmates spend 10 hours a day, he said.

But that doesn’t mean that Douglas County inmates may not find themselves in a two person cell. When Douglas County sends an inmate to another county to be held, it is possible that county is using a double bunking system. That is the case with the three nearest counties that accept Douglas County inmates: Leavenworth, Anderson and Jefferson counties. Officials said single-bunk cells were rare in Leavenworth County, nonexistent in Anderson County and part of an available mix in Jefferson County.

The 14 cells in the women’s pod of the Douglas County Jail, however, were designed for double occupancy, Bunting said. Although that provided more than enough beds for female inmates when the jail opened, the county now has to house them elsewhere, too, he said.

Fewell said the converted Wyandotte County cells with “30 to 40 square feet” weren’t large enough to meet ACA standards, but said those standards aren’t mandated in state or federal statute.

“The ACA standard is just a guideline,” he said. “People get hung up on that. People think it’s a law or regulation. It’s not. It’s a best practice is what it is.”

A liability risk exists with doubling up inmates in smaller cells, Fewell acknowledged. But he said cell size was not mentioned in Kansas statute and hasn’t been a factor in established case law in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Wyandotte County correctional officials have focused on the factors that 10th Circuit case law has emphasized, which include supervision, training and actions, he said.

Bunting said Douglas County officials saw unacceptable risks from double-bunk cells and chose the male single-bed cell design because it was seen as the safest option for inmates and staff.

“It’s the best practice for the amount of space you give a person,” he said. “If you are locked in a cell for a significant amount of time and the space is cramped, I think tensions will arise. We just want to avoid assaults, sexual assaults or some other confrontation. It’s easier to feel comfortable when you don’t have to worry about another person.”

Having double-occupancy cells available is no guarantee they will always house two inmates, said Capt. Wes Houk. Many female inmates are housed in cells without a roommate because of the nature of their crimes or physical, behavioral or mental issues, he said.

A classification pod, which Fewell said was critical to making double-bunking work in Wyandotte County, is absent at the Douglas County Jail. The pod allows Wyandotte County corrections officials to observe new inmates for 72 hours while background and assessment information is compiled, Fewell said. That information is used to assign inmates to cells and security levels based on such things as criminal history, observed behavior, gang affiliation and size (the jail won’t put a large inmate in a cell with a much smaller person).

It would be “irresponsible” to double-bunk inmates without a classification pod, Fewell said.

There is no classification pod at the Douglas County Jail because the one in its original design was eliminated as a cost-saving measure when the jail was constructed. Classification is now done in the jail’s medium-security pod with inmates assigned cells in minimum-, medium- or maximum security after the 72-hour observation period. Plans for the jail expansion include classification pods for both male and female inmates.

Bunting said the jail’s current overcrowding puts stress on its current classification system because staff was often forced to place marginal medium- and maximum-security inmates in lower classification pods. Pairing those marginal inmates with roommates would exacerbate the problem, he said.

Notwithstanding its benefits for Wyandotte County, the approach to doubling up inmates in nonstandard ACA cells is an outlier among larger Kansas counties that the Lawrence Journal-World contacted for this story.

Johnson and Sedgwick counties house some low-risk inmates in dormitory multibed units, but the majority of inmates in both counties are placed in single-bunk cells. Capt. Jared Schechter, of the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, said the single-bunk arrangement was maintained despite the jail’s population of about 1,450 exceeding its 1,158-bed capacity and requiring inmates to be housed elsewhere.

Minimum- and medium-security cells in the Riley County Jail are designed for two inmates, said Capt. Kurt Moldrup, of the Riley County Police Department. All cells are large enough to meet ACA certification, he said.

When Shawnee County last expanded its jail in 2008, officials had new cells designed to meet ACA standards for two inmates, said Eve Kendall, deputy director of the Shawnee County Department of Corrections. The 700-bed facility would have capacity issues now had that not been the case, she said.

The $30 million Douglas County Jail expansion and renovation plan released last year is now being refined, Bunting said. Future inmate projections are being reviewed and trends in jail design considered.

Bunting said the sheriff’s office does follow trends in jail design and was aware of the advantages in safety of dormitory-type settings and calming effects of double-bunking for some mentally ill inmates. As now conceived, the new jail design would do away with the single-cell housing of male minimum-security inmates, he said.

The plan would convert the jail’s current work release unit to a dormitory-style minimum-security pod, Bunting said. Although the population needs of the pod are still being studied, it would have at least 46 beds in a large open space, he said.

“We are trying to build the minimum amount of beds we need to provide us the flexibility to address future trends like the growth in our female population we’ve seen,” he said. “Keeping all that in mind, our focus is keeping staff and inmates safe and secure.”