Perhaps you’ve heard that planning is underway for a solution to overcrowding at the jail downtown, which was built in 1994 and designed to hold 208 inmates. By double-bunking cells and putting down mattresses on the floor, the sheriff can squeeze in somewhere around 350, plus or minus, beyond which they’re sent to rented space in the Middle River Regional Jail in Verona.
By 2000, just six years after the jail was built, it was up over its design capacity and was holding an average of 219 inmates per day. That number has generally been creeping up from year to year, reaching 357 in 2013, for an average jail population growth rate of 4.8 percent per year.
That’s three times as fast as the 1.6 percent annual population growth rate for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County over that same period, suggesting that we’re collectively becoming either a lot more criminal or a lot more keen on incarceration, or some combination thereof.
And then we get to the first half of 2014, when the fast-growing average daily population of local inmates has rocketed to between 440 and 450, according to this RFP document published in April by Rockingham County. (The graph below shows official average daily populations for each calendar year, and an approximated average daily population figure for the first half of 2014.)
The county has just hired Moseley Architects to complete a Community-Based Corrections Plan along with a Facility Planning Study by the end of the year. These are preliminary steps toward receiving permission and funding from the state to build a new local jail, which the county anticipates “will begin no later than March 2016,” according to the RFP.
In a meeting yesterday at the county administration building, representatives from Moseley Architects talked about how they’ll be delivering these documents by the end of this year. Also present were a bunch of people concerned in various ways about the process and the moral/social/fiscal problems presented by the situation at hand. Crime and punishment are heavily politicized issues, and it was an uncomfortable, awkward gathering.
One point of obvious tension sprung up around how seriously alternatives to incarceration – e.g. better mental health services and substance abuse programs – are going to be considered, particularly given the fact that the RFP itself assumes that new jail construction will begin within two years.
Back to the size and quick growth of the jail population: it became clear at the meeting that no one has a great handle on why this is happening: More crime? Bigger court backlogs? More people who can’t make bail? One of Moseley Architects’ first orders of business is supposed to be a data analysis that should help us understand more about the growing crowd in the jail, and inform solutions to the problem.
In all likelihood, right now as you’re sitting there reading this, there are 100 more people locked up in our jail (or shipped down to Verona for lack of space here) than there were last summer. Politics and ideologies aside, that’s an astounding, troubling statistic, especially when no one can really explain it. Here’s to hoping that the folks at Moseley can do that very soon.