Overcrowded cells lead Portage County Jail to begin $20 million dollar expansion

Planned construction of Portage County Jail additions and renovations

Portage County Jail is preparing for a $20 million dollar expansion after four years of overcrowded cells. The renovations will add 132 beds to the existing women’s pod of 34 beds.

2014. A ballot initiative to expand the jail is proposed in November. It fails


2015. Portage County continues to discuss a comprehensive approach towards current problems and future needs. Board sees a need to satisfy current overcrowding problems while seeking alternative solutions to the opioid epidemic and crisis.


2016. An architect was selected to begin designing the expansion


Late 2017. The project went to bid for the construction company. “During the bid process, questions get raised that needed clarified, and sometimes contractors offer suggestions on things they’ve seen, that then need reviewed.”


February 2018. Bids were finalized and reviewed


March 2018. Bid awarded


April 2018. Phase One begins – construction of a new pod of 130 beds


April 2019. Phase One expected to be completed, and occupancy of the new unit begins


May 2019. Phase Two begins – remodeling parts of preexisting jail to improve efficiency


Early 2020: planned completion

The jail, built in 1995, is currently certified to hold 220 inmates – 34 of which are in the female unit. But when the Sheriff identified an overcrowding problem in 2014, Portage County began discussing building additions. “We have a pod designed to hold 34 females. And I came into work one day, I believe we had 78.” Sheriff Dave Doak said.

Todd Bragg has been part of these discussions from the start. “As the Budget Director I am involved in most major projects from a funding perspective,” Bragg said. “I sit in on most meetings and see most information as it develops.  Often this allows me to offer an ‘unbiased’ opinion or ask questions from a different perspective.”

“Four years ago the Sheriff expressed concern regarding the female inmate population.” He recalls. “At that time we looked at doing a smaller ‘remodel’ using a section of the jail that had a ‘u’ shaped cut out in it – we were going to wall off the end of the u and roof over it to create space for around 30 beds.” A property tax levy was placed on the November ballot in 2014 for this remodel, but it failed to pass.

“Two things happened around that time,” said Bragg. “One: it became clear that the remodel was only going to meet our current needs, but leave us with little room for future growth – and the opioid epidemic was only beginning. And two: a large segment of the population indicated that they wanted more than simply jail space to address the opioid epidemic.  They wanted treatment, prevention, etc. as well.”

 

In 2015, a 0.25 percent sales tax increase began specifically to allocate funds towards the project. The increase was to last for five years and bring an estimated $25 million in revenue. Since then, taxpayers have been curious as to why the construction kept getting delayed.

“To be honest, for a $20 million project, it hasn’t taken that long,” Bragg says the most time-consuming part was the design of the jail expansion, which stretched from 2016 to late 2017 when the bid was finalized. During this time, Bragg and others toured several jails with architects, searching for aspects they wanted and wanted to avoid. Construction has to meet a laundry list of regulations, regarding cell size, free space, classroom space, and others. All these tours and state regulations factored into discussions with the architect.

“Could we have done it ‘faster,’ probably,” Bragg says. “Should we have, I don’t think so.  Allowing for all that input and review is how you minimize waste etc. Even in the private sector, 2 years to complete the design phase of a 20 million expansion is not out of line.”

This expansion has been long awaited. At times, the women’s section designed for 34 was at 200 percent capacity. Mattresses were moved to the floor of other sections – public quarters and high-security sections.

Bragg says this is the only expansion the county is planning, but the reality of a growing need is not lost. “The reality is the opioid crisis is putting a severe strain on local resources. Penalties for ‘offenders’ are typically less than a year, putting them in county jails, not State prisons, and right now there is very little other assistance for addicts. Many offenders and/or their families ask to be incarcerated as the only way of ensuring their safety.”

“To the extent that other solutions are not found, it may well be that we’ll see this expansion filled rather quickly.  Our hope is that more happens on the State and National level so that people can get off their addition without going through the criminal justice system.”

“If you build it, they will come.”

 

Mike Brickner, Senior Policy Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the overcrowded Portage County jail is not unique. “Right now, we have a system build to hold about 35,000 people, and there are about 50,000 in the state prison system.” He attributes the increase to a system that has failed citizens in many ways, like lack of access to community resources for those who commit crimes, incarceration instead of rehabilitation to those with addiction, and excessive bonds leaving individuals awaiting trial sitting in jail unnecessarily.

Brickner says a large proportion of people incarcerated are given an amount they must pay to be released before their trial. “These are, largely, low-income people who can’t afford to pay that bail, and so they sit for days, weeks and sometimes months, while they could be out in the community.” He said. “We’re even hearing from judges who are setting a high money bail because they want to ensure that person stays in jail so they don’t overdose while they’re out in the community – but that’s not the way to help a person with addiction.” Both Brickner and Sheriff Doak cite the opioid epidemic as a reason for recent growing incarceration rates.

Overcrowded jails and prisons are a problem in many ways. Statistically, overcrowded prisons have a higher rate of assault among those incarcerated and staff as well. Additionally, more prisoners puts strain on the existing employees. Too many prisoners are a health risk, making it difficult for staff to access them.  And if an individual does get sick, the close quarters increase exposure and the rate of infection. “None of those conditions are comfortable for the prisoner, but it’s also a major public health and safety concern.” He said.

Mr. Brickner of the ACLU doesn’t see a new jail as a solution to the larger issue of mass incarceration. “If you build it, they will come,” he says. Building more beds for those incarcerated doesn’t access the root cause of the rise in incarceration. He says providing programs to help those individuals with addictions or who commit crimes due to poverty are the best way to reduce our prison populations and care for the community. And often, it’s more affordable than expansion. “If you look at the cost of drug or alcohol or mental health treatment instead of incarcerating the person, often times incarceration is two, three, four times higher than the cost of caring for that person in the community and providing that person addiction treatment.”

So who is trying to meet the evolving needs of prisoners? Brickner cites Lucas County, located in Toledo, as a good example of progressive incarceration reform. About 2.5 times the population of Portage County, this area along Lake Erie and the Michigan border was one of 20 counties nationwide selected by the MacArthur Foundation in 2016 to reduce jail population and create a more fair and effective system of criminal justice. They received $150,000 in grants to design a new process and allocate additional resources to those incarcerated or awaiting trial.

“The way we misuse and overuse jails in this country takes an enormous toll on our social fabric and undermines the credibility of government action, with particularly dire consequences for communities of color,” Julia Stasch, president of the MacArthur Foundation, said in 2016.

Lucas County is the smallest county chosen in the selection process that looked at over 200 counties in 45 states. They have the goal to downsize their jail population by 16 percent by 2019, as well as address the racial disparity among those incarcerated.

 

Bragg and Brickner agree that the key to progressive prison reform is education: for the public, for the judges, and for the prisoners. “Educating the public is one of the most important things we can do regarding the big picture of where the County is heading and what its needs are.” Said Bragg.  “The better informed people are, the more confident they are that their money is being used wisely.”

 

While the additional beds are a necessity to improving livable conditions to those incarcerated, Brickner encourages the county and the taxpayers to not lose sight of tackling the main issue – growing mass incarceration rates nationwide. “With building a new jail, we often times see communities that do have an overcrowding problem, and they believe the solution is to build a bigger jail. But if you build a large jail with exponentially more beds in them, you will fill all those beds.” Said Brickner. “So instead of seeking to build a bigger jail, what we should be doing as a society is saying ‘why are these individuals being incarcerated and what can we do to prevent them from being incarcerated and in the criminal justice system?’”