As deadline approaches for action on downtown jail, Champaign County faces funding and activists as roadblocks

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A common area for inmates to gather during the day at the Champaign County jail in Downtown Urbana.

With a U.S. Department of Justice-imposed deadline approaching, Champaign County officials have increasing pressure on them to either renovate or close the 37-year-old jail in downtown Urbana.

The county has already stopped using much of the downtown jail – it has a daily population hovering around 45 people, even though its capacity is 113 inmates. The county has instead relied more on the satellite jail in east Urbana, which has a capacity of 182.

An agreement between the county and the U.S. Department of Justice states that the county must renovate the downtown jail to adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act standards by March 2018. These renovations are expected to cost about $175,000.

Part of the agreement states that the county must renovate the downtown jail to adhere to ADA standards. In November, the DOJ said it would consider granting the county an extension for the county to come into compliance by December 31, 2018 and would extend the deadline even longer if the county decided to fund a new jail.

With the required renovations pending, county officials have discussed either closing the downtown jail and replacing it with a new facility next to the satellite jail or renovating the downtown jail to make it more suitable for housing inmates, said Chief Deputy Allen Jones.

But both funding issues and the efforts of local activist groups who oppose any new facility stand in the way.


Funding issues

Rick Snider, Champaign County Administrator

County board members and jail officials said recently that the money for an extensive renovation to the downtown jail or a new facility would be hard to find.

A renovation to the downtown jail would likely cost $7 million to $9 million because of the jail’s poor design and condition, County Administrator Rick Snider said. An addition onto the satellite jail would cost between $10 million to $11 million.

But Snider, who is leaving the job in December, said the county continues to lack the money necessary for either project. He said any construction or renovation would have to be funded with capital money, of which the county currently has very little.

“The county doesn’t have the financial capacity right now to pay for any kind of construction,” he said.

In August, Sheriff Dan Walsh told the Facilities Committee that he specifically wants to first build “a single-story addition to the satellite jail” that would include 24 single cells for inmates who require separation from other inmates. He said that the second structure would include 50 to 60 cells in a larger block that are “divided into small segments.”

These specific plans to expand the satellite jail have changed since a failed 2016 referendum on county facilities. The Champaign County Facilities Action Plan from September 2016 lists the plan as adding a new “30-bed mental and behavioral health pod” and a “70-bed flexible pod” to accommodate inmates’ separation needs, among other additions.

This plan’s estimated cost was $10 million to $13 million.

Meanwhile, “Build Programs, Not Jails” and other activist groups said they plan to campaign heavily against any county board effort to renovate or build a jail facility.

“We oppose jail expansion without some significant increase in alternatives to incarceration. If you’re not talking about alternatives to incarceration, we don’t really want to talk about maintenance,” said Albert Stabler, an Urbana resident and a member of Build Programs, Not Jails.


Inspections, report detail issues with jail

Jail inspections completed by consultants and the state over the past decade criticized the conditions in the downtown jail and called for renovations or a closure. Documents show that among the criticisms were the lack of maintenance, structural deficiencies and the lack of resources and separation available for special populations in the jail — women and those with mental illnesses.

A facilities report by Gorski Reifsteck Architects given to the county board in January 2015 said that no part of the jail was currently “suitable for the housing of special needs inmates, particularly the mentally ill and inmates with serious medical issues.” That is, the jail lacks enough one-person units to house inmates whose conditions require them to be placed in solitary confinement.

In November 2016, county voters, by a 70 percent to 30 percent margin, rejected a facilities tax initiative that included funds for a proposal to consolidate the two jails.

Yet Deputy Jones said he thinks a decision can be reached soon and that jail consolidation would benefit the inmates.

“The Sheriff’s Office needs to provide the best, safest, constitutionally appropriate space and separation for inmates that are charged to our care,” Jones said. “When we look at the current situation, the downtown jail, in combination with the satellite jail, does not give us the best solution.”

Jones noted, though, that it is up to the board to find the funds for the project.


Activists push for better homeless, mental health services

The Build Programs, Not Jails group started in 2012 to campaign against jail construction and promote alternatives to incarceration.

The group, which usually has anywhere from 10 to 20 active members, holds public forums, attends county meetings, conducts surveys, forms petitions and attempts to reach people through social media.

Stabler, who has been involved in Build Programs since 2015, said the group also advocates for better homeless services, mental health drop-in services and substance abuse treatment.

“Those are things that, for the poorest folks in the community—who are vastly overrepresented in the jail—those services effectively don’t exist now,” said Stabler.

Stabler said the organization has allies in the Education Justice Project, First Followers Reentry and the local chapter of Black Lives Matter. He and other activists have regularly spoken at county board meetings over the past few years.

Stabler said the organization will continue working against the effort to renovate or relocate the downtown jail.

“We’re pretty successful in pushing back,” Stabler said of Build Programs and related groups.

Niloofar Shambayati, a member of the coordinating committee for Build Programs, said the group is working on a written proposal to be presented to the board in the next few months. She said the proposal will offer proof that implementing programs instead of consolidating the jail would be more cost-efficient for the county.

Shambayati said the organization is also working to establish contact with marginalized communities in the area that are most affected by incarceration. Reports have found that African-Americans and people with mental illnesses are disproportionately represented in the county jail populations.

“We would like to mobilize them and have them come to the County Board meetings and give testimonials about the suffering going on in the jails,” she said.

She believes the testimonials will be more effective than Build Programs’ members’ speeches at board meetings.

But Snider said the county also does not have the money to implement the services for which Build Programs is campaigning.

“I think we need to engage in some of those services, but I don’t think there’s going to be enough money to do it under the current structure of the county’s finances,” he said.

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