Douglas County Sheriff’s Office captain says county jail has reached its functional capacity amid COVID-19

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Douglas County Commission

The Douglas County Commission hears a report for local criminal justice leaders on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

The Douglas County Jail has reached its functional inmate capacity amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic faster than originally expected, a sheriff’s office official said.

Capt. Stacy Simmons, of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, reported to the County Commission on Wednesday that the jail had reached its functional capacity at 126 inmates.

That is a lower number of inmates than Capt. Wes Houk, a jail administrator, previously reported as the functional capacity of the facility. Houk had said in June that the jail’s functional capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic was 150-155 inmates.

But Simmons said Wednesday the jail reached its capacity at a lower number of inmates because of how the jail is configured and the types of inmates currently in custody. She said the jail currently has 17 open beds for male inmates, but they are unusable for medium or maximum security inmates. Those 17 beds are some of the 74 beds in the facility that are in open bay areas or otherwise can’t be individually locked off, she said.

“We cannot put those males in an open bay housing unit or a minimum-type housing that doesn’t lock,” Simmons said of medium and maximum security inmates. “We have beds available, but logistically … we cannot put anyone in there,” she added.

Simmons didn’t specifically address whether the 17 cells could be used to house inmates who aren’t medium or maximum security.

Simmons said some of those beds could potentially be locked off, and the jail is exploring that possibility. But she noted that it would be expensive and would not be as simple as adding a locking door, because the doors would need an emergency release function in case of a fire. She didn’t say how many of the beds could be modified in this way.

County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said the county may need to consider remodeling the jail in the future to allow for more secure beds.

“As the jail becomes less full of people who are minimum security and who can be out in the community on work release, is it a possibility to retrofit or to remodel the jail inside its existing footprint to have more secure spaces?” Plinsky said. “(That’s) a question I think will come back to the commission at some point.”

In the meantime, other Kansas counties have begun allowing Douglas County to again house some of its inmates at their facilities. As of Wednesday, Simmons said 15 inmates are being housed at jail facilities in Anderson, Jackson, Jefferson and Pottawatomie counties. Previously, Houk said counties stopped that practice because of COVID-19.

Simmons’ report comes after the County Commission recently challenged local criminal justice leaders to find ways to decrease the number of people they are booking into the jail because of an expected inmate population crisis. Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Brouwer told the commissioners on Wednesday the criminal justice leaders continue to discuss possible ways to decrease their usage. He said some new solutions have been discussed recently, but they have not been completely vetted yet.

“We had a really good session of discussing that and working together to solve this difficult situation,” Brouwer said. “We hope as we continue to provide updates to you, we’ll be able to share more.”

In other business, the commissioners approved vacating a portion of a utility easement associated with a subdivision of property in a residential neighborhood south of Lawrence.

Two neighboring properties at the southern edge of the Red Tail Ridge subdivision, located south of the intersection of North 1000 and East 1167 roads, are reconfiguring their lot sizes. The western lot plans to reduce its land from 13 acres to seven acres and the eastern lot plans to increase from 12 acres to 18 acres.

The County Commission’s approval was required because the utility easement between the two lots would have cut through the newly configured eastern lot, according to planning documents.

Related coverage:

• June 3, 2020 — Noting change in circumstances, Douglas County Commission wants new discussions on plan to expand jail

• June 9, 2020 — Local criminal justice leader says COVID-19 could cause a jail population crisis

• June 10, 2020 — As jail faces looming inmate population crisis, criminal justice leaders say they don’t have many options left to decrease usage

• June 17, 2020 — Douglas County commissioners say they also need state lawmakers to help address jail population issues

• June 24, 2020 — Local criminal justice leaders working to make courts more efficient to address looming jail population crisis

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