Jail tour is eye-opener for county residents
By Brooks Taylor, Mt. Pleasant News
Many of those who were straddling the fence prior to Thursday night’s community meeting in Mt. Pleasant on proposed options for new jail facilities, jumped off.
Residents were offered tours of the Henry County Jail and those taking the tour said it was an eye-opener.
“It’s sad,” offered Rachel Beatty, of Mt. Pleasant, as she left the Henry County Sheriff’s Office. “We need better facilities, both for the employees and the inmates. We need to work hard to pass a bond issue.”
Roger Gard, of rural New London, was one of the 50-plus attending the meeting. He said that prior to touring the jail, he was undecided on whether the county needed a facility. After he toured it, he said a new jail was a no-brainer.
“It was a lot smaller and cramped than I expected,” assessed Gard. “It is not very user friendly for the employees. It is close to dilapidated. I think a new jail is a necessity for the county. It would be a waste of money to try and upgrade and expand the existing jail.”
The current jail, which is part of the sheriff’s office complex, was built in 1963 and is an eight-cell facility. Two past bond issues (in 2005 and 2006) for a new jail narrowly failed. The small facility has the county housing the majority of its inmates in other nearby county jails. Henry County Sheriff Rich McNamee said it is costing the county between $150,000-$160,000 annually, not including transportation and labor for room and board for our county’s prisoners at other facilities.
Julie Pilling, jail administrator, said Wednesday’s inmate count was 29, and the census had been averaging 29 prisoners a day this week. She remembers a time when 18 prisoners were housed in a two-person cell. “We just had to cram them in there, it wasn’t fun or livable.”
Prisoners can be kept in a facility for up to 24 hours before they are transferred, she said.
The sheriff’s prisoner transporting van holds 10 inmates, “more than our jail,” Pilling quipped. Currently 27 Henry County prisoners are being housed in other county jails.
“I had no idea,” exclaimed Deb Jacobsmeier, of Mt. Pleasant, after taking the tour. “I really don’t know the right word that would describe it. I am amazed people have to work in conditions like this. I just can’t grasp it. It is not safe for the workers.
“Of all the things the county could spend money on, this is a legitimate need,” she continued. “I didn’t realize the conditions the jail employees had to work in.”
Steve Gray, of Mt. Pleasant, said the tour “was very informative. I was talking to some other people (on the tour) and it is surprising how little space there is for everything. It was much smaller than I had imagined. With the amount of inmates we have, the county incurs a lot of expense in transporting prisoners. I wish a lot more (people) could see the jail.”
A county committee of over 20 members has been meeting since November to study the feasibility of jail needs. The committee has narrowed the options to four, which range in cost from $8.9 million to $15.8 million. The most expensive option is if the county converted the current jail into a hold-and-transport facility.
Two of the options involve expansion of the facility at its current location while a third option includes building a new sheriff’s office-jail on county-owned land by the former county care facility. All of the facilities would be 44-bed jails with room for expansion.
John Hendrickson, of Mt. Pleasant, said the lack of space was the biggest surprise for him. “I can really see the need for a new facility. The county is spending a lot of money housing prisoners elsewhere. After seeing the jail, I think a new jail is a necessity. It would be a worthwhile investment and worth the additional property taxation.”
“It’s small, crammed and has ventilation problems,” noted Bob Griffith, of Mt. Pleasant. “I think it is also a safety hazard for workers. It is really outdated and it is amazing that they can keep people in there. There is definitely a need to do something. I know it will cost a lot of money, but it costs a lot right now in room and board, and transportation costs. It just isn’t feasible to keep doing this (transporting prisoners to other jails).”
Jeff Heil, of Northland Securities in Burlington, told the jail committee during a recent meeting that with interest added, a $9 million, 20-year bond would bring the total cost to $12,286,000 over the 20-year life of the bond.
A $9 million bond would increase property taxes by 78 cents per $1,000 taxable valuation, Heil added. A $9.6 million bond would increase the tax levy 82 cents.
Mike Hampton, chairperson of the county jail committee, was encouraged by the number of people who attended Thursday night’s community meeting. He said the attendance was larger than at similar meetings in 2005 and 2006.
He said he has heard people express surprise about the current facilities. “The people didn’t understand or know the environment the staff had to work in. While the facilities are clean, they are small.”
Hampton said he has also received feedback that it is about time “we do something.”
If the committee does recommend building a new jail to the county supervisors, Hampton said the work of the committee will have just begun. “It will take a community and a county of people to make this successful.”