‘Things have changed’: Douglas County sheriff discusses how jail population continues to be much lower than peak prior to pandemic

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World File Photo

The Douglas County Jail is shown in this file photo from February 2015.

As Douglas County emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, its jail inmate population looks to be much smaller than it was more than a year ago, pre-pandemic.

This month, the jail’s population has topped out around 120 inmates, with a handful being housed out of county or granted temporary release from custody.

That’s half the number of inmates the jail had in custody at its peak in September 2019, when it reached a total of 240, according to jail records. The 2019 peak was well above the jail’s 186-bed limit, which required the jail to move many inmates to out-of-county facilities.

A few months after that peak, the Douglas County Commission approved a controversial plan to expand the jail. But the expansion project was later abandoned in the wake of the pandemic and the desire of county commissioners to examine other options to address potential overcrowding. As the pandemic lingered, the jail’s population steadily declined.

That trend has continued into 2021. Last week, Sheriff Jay Armbrister told the Journal-World that the jail’s head count came in at just 111, and a few weeks ago it was even lower with just 99 inmates.

“Obviously things have changed quite a bit,” Armbrister said. “I think the people who didn’t belong in jail were let out, and I think COVID has offered us this weird space and vacuum for the entire criminal justice system to rethink how we incarcerate people in Douglas County.”

photo by: Jenn Hethcoat/Contributed Photo

Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister is pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020.

But whether those relatively low inmate numbers will hold remains to be seen. As the county begins to reopen and more people are out and about, the potential for more arrests could arise.

Armbrister said if that if such a spike were to occur, the jail was in a much better position — with its lower population — to house inmates than it was a year or so ago.

That is a major change compared to what the jail was facing in the summer of 2020, when local criminal justice leaders were sounding alarm bells of an incoming inmate population crisis amid the pandemic. With the possibility of the virus spreading in the jail, adding more inmates to the limited space could have been disastrous.

While the feared crisis never materialized locally, Armbrister said the situation surrounding those fears proved instructive.

For instance, when the pandemic began, the jail needed to reorganize and make sure the inmates were safe from contracting the virus. To do that, the jail focused on holding the inmates only in maximum and medium security cells. Many of those who were under minimum security were let out of jail, Armbrister said.

So far, Armbrister said, he thinks that was the right call. While some people may have considered allowing inmates out of jail to be shortsighted, Armbrister said the results in the community spoke for themselves.

“We’ve let a lot of people out, and I haven’t noticed that mayhem, destruction and fire in the streets with these people being back out,” he said.

Another change could be in how the jail treats inmates who are participating in the work release program. The program allows inmates to leave the jail during the day to work, then return at night. Armbrister said those inmates, who are held in the jail’s minimum security cells, should no longer be there. He wants to move the work release program out of the jail.

“If they are good enough to go to work and come back to sleep and eat at our house, they should be doing that from home,” Armbrister said.

Whether the currently lower inmate population is sustainable is another question. Armbrister said he hoped that would be the case, but he has to be “ever the pessimist” and be prepared for a potential spike. He derives some confidence from the fact that other parts of the criminal justice system are also looking for ways to offer more alternatives to jail.

“Overall, I feel like COVID really presented us with a great opportunity to rethink and hit the pause button on our incarceration,” he said. “I think the courts and the (District Attorney’s Office) are on board with really looking at alternatives, and they are doing great work.”

Moving forward, the jail could remove minimum security cells to better use the current space. As the Journal-World previously reported, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky told the County Commission it could consider a remodeling of the jail, which keeps its current footprint but changes the way space is used.

Currently, the jail has a functional capacity of about 150 inmates. That’s because many of the cells are made specifically for inmates in either maximum, medium or minimum security. The minimum security area, which feels more like a dormitory pod than a jail, includes cells that do not have locks.

That means those cells cannot be used by inmates who are required to be under stronger security, rendering part of the facility usable only under certain circumstances. To adjust, the jail could remodel the minimum security cells, which are becoming less necessary under the jail’s current operation, into medium or maximum security cells, thereby increasing capacity for those accused of more serious offenses.

But Armbrister said that could be a plan years down the road. Currently the jail is undergoing general renovations, such as HVAC repairs. A remodel of the cells would take much more work and a lot more money, he said.

Additionally, he said he would never dismiss the possibility of a jail expansion entirely. While he dislikes the idea, he also couldn’t take options away from the community.

“An expansion means not just a bigger facility, but a lot of hiring, a lot of retention and a lot of cost, and I would love to avoid that,” Armbrister said. “An expansion is never off the table, but it’s certainly not something I ever want to talk about again, if the scenario allows it.”

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