A $60 million new jail by the landfill that’s projected to reach capacity in seven years is the plan to fix overcrowding – that is, if it’s actually a real plan at all

Here’s the latest from the city-county committee that’s been meeting since the summer to figure out a solution for the severe overcrowding problem at the jail downtown: a new $60 million facility on a county-owned property on Willow Springs Road on the very southern edge of the city, next to the landfill.

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At this point, it’s projected to include space for 315 total beds, including areas designed for maximum and medium security, mental health housing and work release programs.

With this new jail and the old one here downtown, the total local jail capacity will be 523 inmates. According to some fairly grim projections from Moseley Architects, the consultant hired to simultaneously analyze local corrections needs and design a new jail, the local inmate population will already reach that level by the summer of 2021, which is, like, at least in the next decade.

(Note that “jail capacity” is clearly not a term that the corrections system uses in a particularly literal sense. The supposed capacity of the jail downtown is just 208, though the actual ceiling, beyond which point additional inmates have to be sent to rented space elsewhere, seems to be around to 350.)

In case a $60 million jail – a total price tag roughly equivalent to the city schools’ entire operating budget this fiscal year – whose very designers project to be technically “full” in a few short years doesn’t sound like a great idea to you, take solace in this: it all may be an academic exercise.

“Whether you do something or not, in order to qualify yourself for any state funding that you may or may not need, you have to go through this process,” said Pablo Cuevas, chairman of the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors and a member of the planning study committee. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that you will go through with it.”

A backdrop to this entire process is the state’s standing offer to fund roughly half of a new jail construction’s cost if certain conditions are met. That’s an attractive offer when we’re talking $60 million – a total price tag more than eight times what the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board spent on mental health services in 2012 – and it makes localities eager to meet the conditions attached to it.

One of those is completing the facility planning study that includes all these specifics about the $60 million jail. Another is to formally submit that study to the state by the end of the year, lest we have to wait an entire additional year, at which point, some worry, the state may no longer be feeling so generous about chipping in half the cost of a $60 million jail –a total price tag about 55 times what the Community Services Board spent on substance abuse services in 2012.

Net effect: there’s a rush on this process, thanks to the state’s funding protocols. Actual construction wouldn’t begin, at the earliest, until well after a year from now and in the meantime, said Cuevas, better solutions could supplant the $60 million proposal to kick the overcrowding can a few years down the road. But just in case a better solution doesn’t arise, this argument goes, it’s a good idea to get a foot in the state funding door. Cuevas said at this point, he doesn’t have enough information to decide whether the jail being planned is or isn’t the best course of action.

At three August listening sessions, public comment invited by the city and county on the process was practically unanimous in requesting more time and serious consideration of alternatives to incarceration. That alternatives bit is supposed to be considered in Moseley Architects’ community-based corrections plan that’s being developed even as it designs the new jail; one of the idiosyncrasies of the state’s requirements is that it asks localities to both submit plans for constraining jail population growth with alternative programs and to design a jail based on population projections based on past growth trends that have trended in the absence of these new and improved strategies for constraining inmate population growth (if that’s a confusing sentence, then I’ve succeeded in conveying the highly confusing vibe pretty much all of this.)

Maybe it could seem like the public requests made in August to slow down and involve more people in discussions and decisions about jail overcrowding have been largely ignored?

“Speaking for myself, I empathize … I agree,” said Kai Degner, the city council representative on the jail planning committee. “There’s tremendous momentum right now towards turning in a report by the end of the year motivated by the budget timeline of the state and the potential for state matching funds to not be available if we waited another year.”

“The plan that’s turned in will probably be the best possible plan given the time and information available during the project period,” he continued. “[But] what’s possible to do in that short amount of time isn’t the best possible plan we could create for our community.”

Perhaps that best possible plan will be made at some point later. The first priority, though, is rushing to finish up plans for this $60 million new jail. At this point, they’ll tell the state that’s the plan moving forward, even as they’ll tell us that maybe it is and maybe it actually isn’t.

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7 Comments

  1. Great work as always Andrew. A few points:

    1)
    a) All public documents related to this issue are being made available at
    http://statlive.org/building-justice where you can also find an online petition.
    b) Discussion, including transcripts and summaries of meetings can be found
    in the jail section at http://peacefulyard.com/forum

    2) The ballpark figure used by Pablo Quevas is 70,000,000. This is because there is a
    three step process for calculating the cost of a jail and so far we have only completed
    step 1. Step 1 yields 62,602,284 . Subsequent steps include items such as purchase of
    land, so are not trivial. The step 1 calculation is at
    http://statlive.org/building-justice/OfficialData/Oct28Update/Meeting2014-10-23.pdf
    Discussion and the location, next to the landfill, including an overlay of the proposed
    building, is at http://statlive.org/building-justice/OfficialData/MOC-05-combined.pdf

    3) I hope people can move away from the term ‘overcrowding.’ We can and do rent beds at Middle River
    for what seems to be a bargain price relative to the cost of housing those people at a new jail of our own.
    We just don’t have a say in running the place, and to get that say we would have had to pay a price based on a weak bargaining position. Decision makers are not aware of a compelling argument against continuing to rent indefinitely. So, we don’t have an overcrowding problem.

    4) We _do_ seem to be charging and incarcerating people in growing disproportion to our experienced level of crime. We also now know that jails are planned and built in the absence of data on, let alone understanding of, such basic issues as who going to jail and why.

    • Andrew says:

      On point #2, the figure discussed in the most recent document is indeed $70 million, but that’s based on a 467-bed jail that was considered but then scaled down because of cost. As of this week, according to the county, $60 million is the estimate for a 315-bed jail.

  2. From the 10/28 minutes:
    “8.2 It was decided that $70 million is too high, and the group looked for ways to reduce the initial cost by constructing in phases.”

    In 8.3 a way was arrived at to cut 152 beds (that did not involve cutting max security beds). There was reference to finalizing this at a Nov 5 meeting in preparation for the November 20th deadline for Mosley submitting the Community-Based Corrections Plan to the Community Criminal Justice Board. Have you been given information on the Nov 5 meeting,
    or did you do the calculations off of the available data? A lot of people are waiting to see the plan on the 20th so it would be nice if channels were diligent in making all data completely public.

  3. Ruth Jost says:

    I’d like to know more about our relationship with Middle River. If they have “overbuilt” As some day, would the Department of Corrections really pour millions into a jail here, 20 minutes away? I don’t see anywhere in the criteria for funding a jail a reference to the proximity of other available beds.

  4. Wick says:

    This is a fascinating & frustrating depiction of the prison industrial complex in action. Hats off to Andrew & all our neighbors trying to hold local government accountable. The Atlantic has a good piece about how the Federal Govt influences some of these decisions at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/11/the-only-man-who-can-fix-mass-incarceration-is-barack-obama/382314/.

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