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Undersheriff Andy Bouck likes to compare Ingham County’s jail to an Oldsmobile Delta Eighty-Eight.
The average driver can expect to tack a few thousand miles to the odometer each year before they eventually need a replacement. But the Rocket V8 humming under the jail’s metaphorical hood has been chugging along — without interruption — for more than 50 years. And it’s time for the county to head to the dealership, he said.
“Like everything else in this world, things wear out,” Bouck said. “In this case, it’s things that don’t just need patches and repairs. It needs to be totally replaced with modern stuff. We’re literally spending hundreds of thousands every year just to do piecemeal repairs to make it work. It’s oozing money on a daily basis.”
County commissioners this year seek to levy taxpayers for a new millage to help fund a modernized replacement for the jail in Mason, as well as new offices for the sheriff’s department and additional courtroom facilities. The “justice complex” would be financed with bonds and repaid using the proposed millage over the next 20 years.
Local residents — if the measure is passes the ballot next month — can expect to pay an additional $42.50 in annual property taxes for a home with a taxable value of $50,000, according to the proposal. About $37 million would fund the jail, $16 million would build new office space, $9 million would boost the 55th District Court and another $2.4 million would build an additional courtroom and office space for the 30th Circuit Court.
The project also requires about $6.2 million in site development should voters greenlight the millage next month. Officials also said a new jail would lend to enhanced mental health programming and substance abuse treatment, hopefully rehabilitating would-be repeat offenders and preventing their return to a county jail cell.
“We want to get us up to the standard that’s suitable for our inmates,” added Jail Major Darin Southworth.
The jail earlier this year again passed an annual Michigan Department of Corrections inspection; Officials there maintained the safety and security of the facility has yet to be jeopardized by its aging condition. But even a brief walk down the often dimly lit, concrete hallways revealed the reasons officials are concerned for the future.
Southworth still wrangles an antique set of skeleton keys from his pocket to pass between stubborn locks. Electrical wires connecting camera monitors and other equipment teem from the drop-ceilings. Paint is chipping just about anywhere it can. Box fans and a mesh of extension cords have replaced broken air conditioning units.
And that just scrapes the cosmetic surface. Bouck said the linear design of the jail — with expansive hallways and poor lines of sight between cells and control rooms — comes with its own set of problems. A move to a “pod” design would allow corrections staff to keep a closer eye on inmates and will naturally lead to staff efficiencies.
Ingham County’s jail last year processed about 8,600 inmates and houses nearly 450 people on any given day. Bouck said nearly 5,000 individual maintenance orders last year alone are likely to continue at the same pace this year, draining about $400,000 annually from the county budget. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig, he suggested.
“We’re not just warehousing people,” Bouck added.
“We want to give them the most beneficial things available so they don’t have to come back here. It’s not just about putting them inside a cell and locking the door.”
Most inmates arrive from Lansing, pushing some to voice concerns about the proposed reinvestment in Mason. Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce officials have since urged commissioners to rethink the concept.
“We just think there’s more of an opportunity here for the municipalities (like Lansing and East Lansing) and the county to work together on a solution,” said chamber spokesman Eric Dimoff. “We see an opportunity for savings. You’re transporting most of these people from Lansing to Mason. That’s just inefficient.”
A defendant planning to see a judge on Monday morning would need to hop buses for about an hour to go from Lansing to Mason, according to a route planned through the Capital Area Transportation Authority’s website. But that didn’t account for the sometimes lengthy walk to the nearest stop.
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor said public transportation helps reduce the potential inconvenience but recognized that regional collaboration could eliminate the need for the city to operate its own respective lock-up facility. He personally plans to vote in favor of the proposal regardless, but he hasn’t taken a position on behalf of the city.
Some county commissioners are open to further collaboration but contended the new jail can’t afford to wait another 10 years for those plans to come to fruition. Commissioner Todd Tennis, for example, said he’s open to a shared facility with nearby cities but still has questions surrounding cost sharing and liabilities.
“Some people are very suspicious of the county coming in to take over something,” Tennis added. “One person’s regionalism is another person’s loss of local control. You have to balance all of these things. We’re not going to go into anything where any one partner is balking. We’re not shoving that down their throats.”
Other residents are hesitant to offer their financial endorsement for a project they claimed bears no impact on their daily lives. But Southworth said improvements to the county jail can equate to improvements countywide, ultimately saving taxpayers — and their cars, homes, families and friends — from becoming victims of a crime.
“There is something in it for you,” Southworth said. “We can use your money more efficiently. You’re bleeding money right now with these repairs. If the everyday taxpayer looks beyond this incarceration point and we look at doing better with them while they’re here, perhaps we can all have a greater impact on recidivism too.”