Douglas County Sheriff’s Office proposes adding more space at the jail, but not more beds; it could cost more than $45 million
photo by: Chad Lawhorn
After analyzing the Douglas County Jail’s space, the sheriff’s office is proposing a construction project that could cost over $45 million and would provide more room and more flexibility in where inmates are housed — but that wouldn’t add any more beds.
County commissioners got their first look at the proposal during a work session on Wednesday, and Sheriff Jay Armbrister stressed that he didn’t want it to be seen as a jail expansion, an idea that’s been deeply unpopular with local activists and that has been rejected by county voters in recent years. The plan, Armbrister said, is not to make a “bigger jail with more beds,” but rather to add space that will allow for the jail’s current beds to be utilized more effectively, safely and humanely.
Armbrister said the point of the project would be to increase the jail’s “functional capacity.” He said the jail has 186 beds, but 77 of those beds don’t have the security measures necessary to house medium and maximum security inmates. That includes the jail’s former work-release space, an open-style dormitory that has now been turned into a minimum security unit. Because places like that dormitory aren’t equipped to house inmates who need more supervision, the jail can’t shuffle those inmates just anywhere.
“When I say that we have a 186-bed facility, our hope is to remain at 186 beds, but I want our functional capacity to go from 135-ish to 186,” Armbrister said.
The proposed project would try to solve that problem by building a “modular” unit with individual “pods” that could be used for a variety of purposes, according to Armbrister and TreanorHL architect Jeff Lane, who assisted the sheriff’s office in the analysis.
With the modular unit, Armbrister said that if the jail needed to isolate some inmates for health reasons, or if it simply needed more space for a certain population than the jail’s other units were designed to house, the pods could be reassigned to fit whatever needs the jail had at the moment.
“It gives us options,” Armbrister said. “We may have an outbreak of, say, COVID; we may need to quarantine several people. We could clear that entire thing out and make it entirely a quarantine unit. We may have to do some shuffling, but it gives us options to change so that way, one thing is not built specifically for work release, one thing’s not built specifically for minimum (security), which has brought us to where we are today in that those things are so tied into what they are that you can’t move away from them.”
Lane said the project could also free up space for a short-term “pre-class” unit, where jail staff could observe and screen inmates to determine which part of the jail would be the best fit for them based on the level of supervision they need.
photo by: Douglas County screenshot
Commissioners asked Armbrister whether the project would be just a renovation of the jail’s space or would actually enlarge the jail’s physical footprint — “We’re not doing all of these changes within the existing facility, right?” Commissioner Patrick Kelly asked. And Armbrister confirmed that the project would require new construction beyond the current jail building space.
“… Let’s just go ahead and say it — the word ‘expansion’ is going to be used at some point, but what I would like to point out is that any time the word ‘expansion’ in this project is used, (it) is simply to talk about the footprint of our building, but nothing else will be expanded,” Armbrister said.
He said that extended to the staff, as well. Unlike previous plans for expanding the jail, some of which would have required dozens of new staff members, Armbrister said the project he is proposing would only necessitate a small increase in staffing.
It would, however, require tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to complete. Armbrister told the commission that the total cost of his proposal could be more than $45 million. He said the actual construction could range from $29 million to $37 million, and the remaining $8 million would be for “soft costs,” including things like contingency funds and furniture.
In 2018, voters widely rejected a half-cent sales tax that would have funded an expansion of the jail, and the County Commission subsequently tried to go ahead with the project using funds from a sales tax that was passed in 1994. But in September 2020, the commission shelved that version of the jail expansion project, which would have added up to 112 beds and cost roughly $30 million.
Armbrister first approached the county about doing the analysis in November of 2021, with hopes that it could reveal new strategies to improve equity for inmates. He said at the time that because the jail had no minimum security unit for women, the women at the jail who would qualify for minimum security received only 3.5 hours of free time per day, compared to the 16 hours of free time allotted to their male counterparts. If the new pods were built, Armbrister said, then the jail could allocate more pods specifically for female inmates when it had a larger female population, so that it wouldn’t have to house all of its female inmates in the same higher-security unit.
If the project is to proceed in the future, it will need the County Commission’s approval first, a spokesperson with the sheriff’s office confirmed on Friday.
In a short statement to the Journal-World on Friday afternoon, Armbrister said his goal was to be transparent in helping folks understand why he’s pursuing this project. People with questions or feedback about the plan can call Armbrister at 785-841-0007 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.