Vote would put end to discussion of renovations at downtown jail

Vote would put end to discussion of renovations at downtown jail

URBANA — County board members should be prepared Tuesday night to vote on closing the door to any more discussion of rehabilitating the much-maligned 32-year-old jail in downtown Urbana, according to the chairman of the board's facilities committee.

"There's no question it will cost more to remodel the downtown jail and bring it up to a usable facility than it would be to build a new one. There's no doubt about that," said Urbana Democrat Tom Betz, who heads the facilities committee and will run Tuesday night's board study session on jail issues. "My own view is that there is going to have to be an expansion out at what we call the satellite jail" on Lierman Avenue in east Urbana.

The study session begins at 6 p.m. at the Brookens Administrative Center, 1776 E. Washington St., U. Among the agenda items is a "straw vote" on replacing beds in the downtown jail through expansion of the satellite.

Also arguing for closing the downtown facility and adding to the satellite is Sheriff Dan Walsh, a Republican.

In a lengthy report given to board members last week, Walsh wrote: "I am very certain (and have been for years) when I tell you that the downtown facility is inadequate for both inmate and office needs. I am also very confident when I suggest that it will be more economical to build and result in more efficient operations in the long run to build-out at the satellite and not remodel the downtown" jail.

Betz said the board needs to start moving toward a decision this year on how to face the jail issue.

"Everyone's had a chance to visit the jail, and had a chance to listen to the arguments, and they've seen the report that was done by the Justice Department" on problems in the downtown jail, he said. "I would like to see the board early on not spend the next six months trying to make a decision on whether we should remodel it, or do feasibility studies and what have you and spend $100,000 more deciding this issue.

"I met with (jail architect) John Frauenhoffer and the sheriff and point-blank asked him the question, 'Is it feasible to use this?' He said that it can be done if you are willing to spend the money. And the money is very substantial."

But beyond that, Betz said, is the problem of operating two separate jail facilities more than a mile apart. The downtown jail has a maximum of 131 bed spaces; the satellite has 182.

"You would still have the logistical issue of having two separate systems. It becomes, long term, very expensive," Betz said.

The benefits of consolidating the jails, Walsh said, include:

— Not having to regularly transport laundry, food and other items from one facility to the other.

— Keeping medical and mental-health facilities and professionals in one building.

— Allowing all officers to work out of one site, which would be helpful for training, supervision and efficiency.

— Consolidating master control functions, which could provide some personnel flexibility and efficiency.

The downtown jail has been criticized as undersized and poorly designed almost from the time it opened in 1980. There have been problems with mold, with animals infesting the building, and with inadequate facilities for the growing number of inmates with medical and mental-health issues.

"I want jails that are safe, secure, that are as safe for the people who have to work in those jails as they are for the people who have to live in those jails," Betz said. "I would not want to work in the jail, period, under any circumstances. But as a person on the county board and a taxpayer who is paying for correctional officers to work in that facility, with the risks to being in it, I want those risks to be as minimal as possible. I don't want there to be blind spots where an officer can be injured. And I don't want there to be situations where an officer can't see what is going on so one inmate can kill another inmate."

No timetable has been established for construction of a replacement jail, nor has financing been discussed at anything more than an informal level. Money from the county's quarter-cent public-safety sales tax is expected to become available in about 2015.

"I think you first have to know what you need," Betz said. "What I don't want to see happen is have someone say, 'Well, the quarter-cent money in 2015 will potentially have $15 million. Therefore we need a $15 million jail.' That is the biggest mistake you can make, is to have the facility match the dollars.

"You're better off to design what you need, the things with mental health, the sex segregation, the ability to provide certain services, the ability to provide alternatives: home confinement, weekend monitoring, counseling. Not everyone needs to be in a highly secure cell."

Betz believes the current county board — even though it has less than a year to go on its term, and could lose as many as half its members next November — is best-equipped to decide the jail issue.

"We either begin planning now so that we can get something done by 2015 or 2016, or we put it off. The argument always is that we should put this decision off to the next board, that there's an election coming up," he said. "But the problem there is that the next board is going to have a huge number of new members. It will take them a year to a year and a half to get up to speed on the issue, and guess what? There will be an election coming up."

John Jay, the new head of the minority Republicans on the county board and a vice chairman of the facilities committee, said a straw vote Tuesday is "probably a little faster than I'd like. I know we need to get moving on it, but I think we need to look at the presentation before we make up our mind."

He said he wants an absolute assurance that the downtown jail is inadequate and would cost too much to remodel.

"I've heard some of the propaganda that it's unsafe and we can't somehow reuse it. But I heard that on the (old) nursing home too and it turned out to be a pretty nice facility for ILEAS (the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System). So I'm not opposed but I want to hear the whole story before committing to doing away with the downtown jail."

Further, he wants money committed to maintaining existing facilities.

"We need to put a mechanism into our budget to start taking care of these buildings," said Jay, a Mahomet Republican. "The only reason the downtown jail is in the shape it is today is because we didn't take care of it."

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787 wrote on January 30, 2012 at 11:01 am

Is "kibosh" a good word to use in a front page headline? (in this morning's print edition)

Seems to be an odd word to use, when there are other words that are more familiar to most people, which would convey the same message.

pattsi wrote on January 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm

If you are interested in learning more about jail, you can read a report titled Jailing Communities put out by the Justice Policy Institute at this web site

HOCKEYDAD wrote on January 30, 2012 at 4:01 pm

The so-called "Downtown" jail has been a boondoggle since the day it was designed and opened in 1980. I would love to know how much successive county boards have spent on feasibility studies on that building. The very day it opened, it open at full capacity and housed less inmates than the jail it replaced. The county had been forced to build the new jail by the State of Illinois to replace the old sheriff's residence and jail that had become dangerous, disgusting and in a horrible state. The county board at the time fought building a new jail until they were forced to do so, and then only spent what they had to. Mr. Jay's comment that the old jail has fallen into the state that it is in because of lack of maintenance is absoutely wrong. It was poorly designed and poorly built to begin with. That jail was supposed to have been designed and built with the ability to expand upwards by adding floors on top as needed. It was later found to have been built with footings that weren't deep enough to support the addition of upper floors and being landlocked,  adding on was impossible. That is why the Satellite jail had to be built over a mile away. All Mr. Jay has to do is schedule a visit to that jail and he can see for himself how dangerous it is for inmates and staff alike. All this about the buildings where we house inmates in this county is academic however. The real problems lie with the "If you build it, they will fill it" mentalitiy of Law Enforcment in this county and the legislature of this state. When the Satellite jail was built, it was predicted to cover the needs of housing inmates for 20 plus years. The Satellite jail opened in 1995 and was at capacity in only a few years. Judge Difanis has done a good job of working with jail staff to reduce the inmate population, but his hands are tied when it comes to our local police agencies making arrests for minor infractions and taking the arrestees to jail. His hands are also tied by the legislature who keeps criminalizing more and more things and adding more severe penalties for crimes by turning into felonies offences that used to be misdemeanors. Add to this the fact that this state has treated the mentally ill like criminals for years by closing Mental Health facilities all over the state and you see why we cannot keep a jail that is not full for very long. This county has applied band-aid fixes to open wounds when it comes to the jail for over 30 years, and in the process has wasted millions of our tax dollars on doing feasibility studies and housing inmates in other county jails. Message to ALL county board members, STOP WASTING OUR TAX DOLLARS!          

Chambana Dude wrote on January 31, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Mr. Jay's comment is laughable. 

"The only reason the downtown jail is in the shape it is today is because we didn't take care of it."

Always Yours,

Chambana Dude