Gov't Watch: Despite studies and proposals, county jails see little improvements

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

By Klaudia Dukala/For CU-CitizenAccess.org -- After more than 10 years of debate and studies of the defects of the downtown Champaign County jail, county officials still have no clear plan to replace it.

As recently as 2012, the run-down jail cells, a lack of storage space, and structural and design problems led Sheriff Dan Walsh to propose a rapid plan of action to Champaign County Board members: Close the downtown jail and focus on expanding the satellite jail, at 502 S. Lierman Ave., in Urbana.

Yet, two years after the proposal, not much has changed, and the conditions of the jails are still unsatisfactory. No blueprints for the proposed project exist, and no estimates in regard to the costs of the project have been calculated, Walsh said.

Together, the two facilities are capable of housing a total of 313 inmates, and in February the average daily population of the jails was 182 inmates, according to a presentation Chief Deputy Allen Jones presented to the County Board’s Facilities Committee on March 4.

The two jails are supervised and maintained by 60 officers from Champaign County’s Corrections Division, Jones said.

The division is projected to run on an estimated $6.7 million in 2014, which has risen more than $850,000 since 2010, according to the county’s budget.

Stan James, the County Board’s facilities chair, said recently he doesn’t know when the board will take action. That’s the “million dollar question,” he said, adding that possible answers most likely won’t be finalized until late this year or mid-2015.

"The issue is not a simple fix," James said, adding that budget concerns are halting the board’s progression toward a firm decision. "The budget is such that many funding sources need to be looked at before commitments are made to a project."

Several recommendations on how to deal with the budget issues have been suggested to the board members, including suggestions from a consultant at the Institute of Law and Policy Planning. Suggestions also have been made by the Champaign County Community Justice Task Force and the Illinois Department of Corrections. All have given the board members options for funding the project.

Because of varying opinions, County Board members are having difficulty balancing the needs of those in the jails and those who pay the taxes, James said.

"There are folks who argue jail serves clients better than other public entities, and some of the services need to be scaled back," he said. "Others argue we need to promote finding ways to allow folks who are coming out of a jail a pathway to a better standard of living and a more productive lifestyle."

The board is not only keeping taxpayers in mind, however. The standard of living for inmates incarcerated at the jails is also a concern the board is trying to address.

Built in 1980, the downtown jail has been often cited for its structural and functionality problems. But the newer satellite jail, which was built in 1995, also has been criticized.

Both jail facilities are deficient, structurally and mechanically. They lack regular maintenance, and the jails’ modes of supervision are outdated and practically useless, according to the Institute for Law and Policy Planning’s Criminal Assessment report, which was written and presented to board members in 2013. The institute received a $120,000 contract to study the jails.

"Due to the structural deficiencies, proper segregation of special needs, mental health, and medical inmates has not been feasible," the report stated. "Holding cells (crowded with special needs inmates) in the booking area at the preliminary stages of this study were not defensible, as were the conditions in the Downtown Jail."

Not only are jail quarters crowded and unorganized, but, according to the report, the sheriff’s office also doesn’t have sufficient storage space, especially for equipment, evidence, documents or other operational items.

In a 2013 inspection report, the Illinois Department of Corrections criticized the limited space and functionality in the jails, specifically the downtown jail.

According to IDOC’s report, the improvements suggested for the Champaign jails brought to "light the need for more space for [the jails'] many programs and the reduced space available for the growing special needs population ... The growing detainee population with the need for specialized care is beginning to present a problem for your security staff."

Peter Tracy, director of the Champaign County Mental Health Board, said the board has been working to improve the services offered to special needs inmates at both the satellite and downtown jails.

"We have been restructuring our contracts with community based service providers to offer services designed to appropriately deflect people with behavioral health problems from being incarcerated and to make sure people who are incarcerated are connected to appropriate behavioral health services upon release," he said.

James said one way to speed-up the board’s decision and end the debate is for citizens to attend the County Board meetings.

"Residents are aware of what is going on," he said. "I wish more would express their views and come before the board from time to time to do so."

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