The Jail Population Has Been Growing Quickly, And Now It’s In Overdrive

jail picture

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.

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  1. Kathy Whitten says:

    Seems like a problem better addressed by sociologists or criminologists than by architects. I would like to see nonviolent offenders in a different type of program and surely that would be a more affordable option. Thanks for this article. Hopefully it will bring awareness to the issue.

  2. LA says:

    Thanks for covering this. Is the county really expecting Moseley Architects to do a data analysis of the jail’s demographics? Isn’t that like asking a baker to give you a weather forecast? Perhaps architects have a different skill set than I imagine. At the very least, this poses a conflict of interest. Aren’t there more qualified professionals who could help us understand this trend better than the very firm which stands to profit from the putative increase in “demand”?

    • Andrew says:

      At yesterday’s meeting, a big deal was made of the fact that Moseley Architects has non-architect jail experts on staff who will simply be analyzing the jail population, crunching numbers and presenting the county with various options, including alternatives to incarceration.
      You wouldn’t really be able to tell that from looking at the corrections page on their website – – and it would seem that a jail consultant employed by an architectural firm that designs jails is going to be inclined to recommend options that require subsequent architectural work.
      Even if big steps are taken to divert certain groups of people from jail to alternative programs, they made it sound yesterday as if some sort of new construction or expansion will likely occur.
      Much of that will be informed by the data analysis that Moseley is supposed to begin ASAP. If you’re concerned, pay close attention to this bit and scrutinize the numbers that will start getting tossed around as the city and county begin to make decisions based on them.

    • Sam Nickels says:

      Yes, this is a conflict of interest. No doubt about it. A letter should be sent to whoever hired the firm requesting that the two processes be separated: alternatives to slow or reduce the jail population, and proposals for cost projections for building a new jail. If it takes us two extra years to get through this process and we pay $1 million/year to Middle River Regional Jail, while in the long run we save $40 million, it’s a no brainer — take the extra time and look at the research on alternatives. And there is a hell of a lot of research. A mental health counselor and architects are not qualified to review the literature. A team of academics who are criminal specialists, sociologists and economists would be appropriate, and would not have conflicts of interest. Undoubtedly there would be interest from JMU to assist with this, or the appropriate government entities would be wise to invest in a significant study on this from such a team. That way you will get much better information than from Moseley, and I have nothing against the Moseley firm, it’s just about who has what expertise.
      Sam Nickels

  3. Harvey Yoder says:

    Thanks for this excellent piece. Hope you can come to our 7:15 FOR breakfast discussion group at 979 Summit Avenue Thursday, July 10, for some more conversation on this issue. I’ll be sharing this post with others.

  4. J Davis Sensenig says:

    Thanks for this story, Andrew. I attended this meeting last week and afterward I contacted each person on the County Board of Supervisors by email to let them know that we should enlist the services of Fairfield Center. The Fairfield Center is a great local resource for leading a serious listening process in the community about how we want to address overcrowding in our local jail. I’d encourage other county residents to do the same. This work is shared by City and County, so residents of the City should contact members of City Council.

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