New Wood County Jail Aims to Improve Safety, Efficiency

wood county jail
Wood County Jail

County Board to Vote on New Jail Facility in June

OnFocus – The Wood County Board will soon be voting on whether to invest $58 million in a new jail facility (with the anticipated project cost $56.8 million). If approved, work could begin on the new facility next year.

The current correctional facility has not seen extensive updates in decades, resulting in significant gaps in storage needs, technology possibilities, and programming space. Built in the 1950’s and expanded in the 1980’s, there are several safety, efficiency, and maintenance issues with the current facility.

Discussion for a new jail facility started in the late 1990’s, and in 2001, a jail study was completed. At the time, a new facility would have cost $20 million, but the vote failed and funding was not provided.

“Here we are twenty years later with essentially the same problem and the same needs – and the same size jail is going to cost us $56 million,” explained Laura Valenstein, Chairperson for the Jail Ad Hoc committee.

“We understand that it wasn’t the right time back in the early 2000’s but here we are again addressing the same issue, looking at the same size facility that we were 20 years ago, and what’s the biggest difference? The cost,” added Sheriff Shawn Becker. “The need has not changed. The need has now become more great.”

Of the current jail challenges, most costly is the need to house inmates at other correctional institutions due to limited space. Currently, Wood County spends approximately $1.3 million every year to house 90 inmates in other jail facilities. These are contracted costs averaging $35/36 per day per inmate, and a cost that will continue to increase exponentially. The new jail project would add 87 beds, bringing the jail’s capacity to 225 with potential for up to 300 if bunks are doubled.

“The inmates that aren’t housed at Wood County Jail still need to be transported back and forth for necessary court dates and to be processed in and out,” said Valenstein. “That’s a major financial concern. Also, because they aren’t getting programming, they are not benefiting but just biding their time.”

Any upgrades to the current facility would need to meet new Department of Corrections standards, which are much different from those in the 1950’s. Expanded space and options for rehabilitation programs would be necessary with any remodel and critical to a new facility.

“The goal would be to keep those inmates all local so we can provide programming for them,” said Valenstein. “We would like to be able to expand that to offer more education options, more comprehensive rehabilitation options, more religious programming, anger management, job training, etc.”

“Once released, they have more tools to become successful and that’s a huge, huge win for us,” said Becker. “They are going to be here and do their time. If they do something with themselves while they are here, then be released and take care of themselves, their family, pay taxes – then it’s a huge win for everybody.”

Perhaps most critical, the current jail has significant safety issues for both officers and inmates. Being an outdated linear-style facility presents challenges with visibility, for starters.

“We have a facility that isn’t safe. Bottom line,” said Becker. “We have a linear design and our corrections staff have a hard time seeing our inmates and monitoring them as close as they should be and we’ve had some tragedy. People have taken their lives and committed suicide.”

Though mental health programming is available and emphasized, there are limitations to what jail staff can offer in the current facility.

“We’ve taken as many strides as we can investing in mental health. Our corrections staff is awesome, they work hard. The state requires we check on inmates every hour, we do more than that,” said Becker. “Furthermore, you look at the impact on your staff that have to deal with a tragedy like that. We lost 18 corrections officers after that, really good hardworking people. Having to deal with a tragedy was too much.”

“It’s cost the county money to the point where we could become uninsurable,” he added.

If the jail project is approved, there would be a starting 30-cent increase in the mill rate. What this means is taxpayers would pay an additional 30 cents per $100,000 of assessed property value for the first two years. After that, the amount would increase to 35 cents. After five years, that amount would decrease incrementally until the loan is repaid.

“If we do nothing, we will continue to pay those out-of-county housing costs and we have roughly $5 million of needed repairs that we really need to do to our current jail,” said Valenstein. “Not to mention some of the issues that we struggle with in efficiency and lack of programming space. If we address some of those problems, we’ll have to adhere to new Department of Corrections codes which will likely reduce our capacity even further down to about 80 beds instead of the 132 that we are currently at.”

She added that building a new jail would also allow the County to control and bond for certain costs. (The proposed resolution is to bond for $58 million to allow some buffer, with anticipated project costs at $56.2 million. Any excess funding would be applied directly to the principal balance.)

“We can’t bond for operational costs so if we have a major problem going forward that’s a dollar amount that we can’t predict and control,” she explained.

If a new jail facility is approved, the county will need to hire eight additional corrections officers and an additional maintenance person at an operational cost of $700,000 per year – a cost that is still significantly less than housing inmates out-of-county.

“We’ve been as transparent as possible,” said Becker. “If we don’t take care of this now, it’s going to be more and more and more. As leaders, we have to ask if we want to push this down the road further. The needs will continue to be there. Every year that we put this off, the cost is going to go up.”

He added that with borrowing and interest rates at an historic low, undertaking this project now could save taxpayers. The new facility would be constructed on the courthouse campus (where it is currently located) for efficiency and safety.

“It’s the biggest project Wood County has taken on in decades, but it’s needed,” said Becker.

The public is invited to join the Wood County Jail Study Adhoc Committee on Wednesday, June 9th at 6pm at the American Legion Post 54 in Marshfield for a Town Hall style meeting regarding the Wood County Jail Project.

Update- Video from the hearing is available from the City of Marshfield:

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News Desk
Author: News Desk

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