The $63 Million New Jail Gets Pigeonholed

Photo by Rob.

Photo by Rob.

Remember that plan to build a $63 million new jail by the landfill that was projected to reach its rated capacity shortly after opening? But maybe it was actually just a proverbial foot in the door to the state corrections apparatus’s funding trough in case Harrisonburg and Rockingham County weren’t able to come up with any better sort of plan?

The limbo didn’t last long. On Wednesday afternoon, the city and county announced plans to join Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County in an expanded Middle River Regional Jail Authority. In brief:

  • Harrisonburg and Rockingham County will equally split a buy-in price of $21.5 million in exchange for a guarantee of at least 250 beds in the Middle River Regional Jail (MRRJ) in Verona.
  • They will keep the existing jail in downtown Harrisonburg open, but they won’t be building any new jail.
  • The localities’ shares of the operational budget for the MRRJ will eventually be based on the number of inmates each sends there.

At the end of last year, everyone involved acknowledged that negotiations to possibly expand the authority were occurring, but were otherwise pretty hush-hush about the whole thing. They were being so hush-hush, in fact, that when city council voted to send the now-cast-aside plans to build a new jail to the state – at a fairly charged meeting during which members of the council spoke at length about the inmate overcrowding problem facing the community – no mention whatsoever was made about possibly joining the MRRJ authority.

Where the big push for alternative local approaches to criminal justice is concerned, the announcement this week included on-paper commitments to launch work-release and weekender programs at MRRJ, to improve mental health and substance abuse treatment services, and to check out options for creating day-reporting program. The sheet handed out at the press conference didn’t provide additional detail here, or say anything about funding these.

The announcement pretty much came out of the blue on Wednesday. Final, binding agreements haven’t been signed (the lawyers have to finish up with their busywork first) but city and county officials are quite clear that plans for the $63 million dollar jail – the ones that they paid a consulting firm $120,000 to write, and that brought a standing-room-only crowd of protesters to council chambers, and that were signed and dispatched to the state over those objections – are suddenly and definitely off.

One thing I don’t quite understand is why the whole premise and possibility of joining the MRRJ authority were kept so secret while the city and county went through the expensive motions of advancing the $63 million plan.

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One Comment

  1. Why were things kept so secret? The only secret was the Airport
    meeting. The electronic petition with over 300 signatures studiously
    avoids saying ‘no new jail’ and instead insists on ‘building better
    communities.’ Many people did not know what was going on because
    many people prefer following their own truth to hearing others.

    At the end of 2013 an initiative came out of the African American
    community to provide support for residents returning from
    incarceration. There was distrust of anything connected to the
    Criminal Justice system, from Department of Corrections, to the
    programs under Court Services, and even service providers surrounding
    those programs. The idea was to provide support to these folks through
    networks of people they trusted and who understood them and were
    personally invested in them– family, church, peers.

    The city did not get on board. However, the work kept on and won Ban
    the Box. When the jail came up at the April 22nd council meeting,
    those people were present. If you watch that council meeting, city
    staff were completely upfront about the fact that MRRJ had them over a
    barrel in negotiations and that that was why they were proposing to
    build. Those in the audience could easily put two and two together and
    made no secret of it.

    See the February 11 entry at for evidence of this
    work ongoing here, then May 12th for lingering advocacy for what had
    been brought forward and opposition to incarceration. July 10th lays
    out the response to the forming of the second ‘anti-jail’ group which
    attended an e-mail that compared delving into ‘alternatives to
    incarceration’ to the ‘red herrings’ that hobble Martin Luther King
    street re-namings. The e-mail goes on to prescribe renting by the bed
    at MRRJ as the right thing for which to push. Still people insisted on
    barreling forward with ‘no new jail.’ There was a rally in front of
    Council chambers that was billed this way on leaflets. The person
    interviewed by WHSV had sense enough to check in with people and was
    briefed for 15 minutes to drop and avoid all the ‘no jail,’ ‘overcrowding,’ and
    alternative incarceration (slipped once) talk. You can see he hit a home run.

    But as more people started to be mobilized, other factors came
    into play that further deafened people toward listening to or giving
    voice to others. Alternatives to incarceration took off, and then no
    new jail reemerged.

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