By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
For years, Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn has been saying the county jail needs some changes and a possible expansion. The price tag for that work at the Wood County Justice Center is $17.6 million.
But once it’s done, Wasylyshyn promised he won’t be back with any more jail requests for the county commissioners.
“We think this will get us many, many years,” the sheriff said Thursday as plans for the jail expansion were presented to county commissioners Doris Herringshaw, Ted Bowlus and Craig LaHote.
The project can be divided into two separate proposals. One is the expansion and reconfiguration of the intake and medical areas of the jail. That would cost an estimated $8.6 million.
The second part of the plan adds on an expansion of inmate cells plus renovation of the security pods. That would raise the overall price tag to $17.6 million. The jail currently has 220 beds. The expansion would add another 78 beds.
The commissioners asked for more time to review the expansion plans. Wood County Administrator Andrew Kalmar said the commissioners support the plans for revamping the booking and medical areas of the jail, and have already appropriated funds for the architectural and engineering of that part of the project.
But the actual addition of inmate beds is not so certain. “The question is do they want to take one step more,” Kalmar said.
The jail averages 165 to 180 inmates a day. However, all inmates can’t be housed in any cell. For example, high security inmates can’t be placed in minimum security housing. Females can only be housed in female units. Relatives cannot be in the same area, nor can inmates being held for the same crime.
So while the jail has 220 beds now, that doesn’t necessarily mean it can house 220 inmates. Justice Center Captain Rebecca McMonigal compared it to a Rubik’s cube.
Wasylyshyn said the addition of more beds would benefit the county. The county has operated a jail since 1820, and that’s not likely to change.
“We’re always going to be in the jail business,” he said.
Even if the county does not need all the beds, it can rent the extra to area counties facing overcrowding in their jails, the sheriff said. This year, the jail will take in close to $350,000 from other counties housing prisoners here. Some come from as far as four hours away, he said.
The expansion plans call for more security housing and more female beds. Currently, the jail has just 32 female beds. There are currently 36 female inmates in the jail – so four are using cots.
“We do what we have to do,” Wasylyshyn said after the commissioners’ meeting.
“Every county needs more female beds,” said Garry McAnally, of Wachtel & McAnally.
“If we build female beds, they will come,” Wasylyshyn said of inmates from other counties.
But the more critical need is the revamping of the inmate booking and medical areas – which the commissioners appear to agree need changes.
The intake area, which was designed and built in 1989, is too small for the current inmate numbers. When the number of inmates being processed is too great, the prisoners are put together in cells.
“Our biggest concern is just having the five holding cells,” Wasylyshyn said. “If we have large groups, we are double booking.”
There are just too many prisoners who cannot be placed into the regular jail cells because they need close observation due to suicidal behaviors, medical problems, mental health problems, intoxication, or they are detoxing from drugs or alcohol.
There often are no cells available for prisoners waiting to go to court, so they end up roaming around the intake area, the sheriff said.
A new sallyport will be built that can handle a busload of prisoners if necessary. The old sallyport will be used to house sheriff’s vehicles, like the special response team vehicle, that are now stored outside.
The medical services need more space due to all the inmates who come in needing detox treatment. The new medical area will have isolation cells, and will have room for sick inmates to be housed right next to the medical services.
A few years ago, Wasylyshyn had to make a choice – add more beds to the county jail or add more space to the jail booking area. Since the county was already spending money by paying other counties to house Wood County’s overflow inmates, the 75-bed jail expansion project won out.
When Wasylyshyn took over as sheriff, the county was spending about $500,000 a year on housing prisoners elsewhere. “Let’s stop the flow of Wood County money,” the sheriff remembered thinking.
The decision paid off, with Wood County jail being able to house all of the local inmates plus bringing in extra money for housing prisoners from other counties.
But that left unresolved issues in the booking and medical areas of the jail. Over the last few years, the sheriff has made repeated requests to the county commissioners for improvements to those areas.
This time, however, the proposal came without a need to increase staffing at the jail. By working with the architectural firm of Wachtel & McAnally, and focusing on creating line of sight opportunities for staff, no additional employees would be needed.
“Eyes are always better than a camera,” though cameras will still be used throughout the jail, McAnally said.
“They’ve probably done more jails in this part of the country than anyone else,” Wasylyshyn said about the firm that focuses on efficiency and safety for staff and inmates.