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."