Board approves repairs to county jail

Long-term solution still needed

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published October 15, 2013

 County officials will soon be making more than $800,000 of renovations that will allow them to reopen the annex building of the Macomb County Jail. The 59-year-old jail, located in Mount Clemens, has been facing overcrowding issues for many years.

County officials will soon be making more than $800,000 of renovations that will allow them to reopen the annex building of the Macomb County Jail. The 59-year-old jail, located in Mount Clemens, has been facing overcrowding issues for many years.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

MACOMB COUNTY — One month after an overcrowding emergency was declared at the Macomb County Jail, county officials adopted a plan to address concerns at the facility in the short term.

On Oct. 10, the Macomb County Board of Commissioners unanimously supported the recommendation of County Executive Mark Hackel to make $813,400 worth of renovations and repairs to the jail annex so that it can be reopened. The project will include the replacement and installation of mechanical rooftop equipment, the restoration of cooling tower units, and a number of architectural and plumbing repairs.

The 200-bed, minimum-security annex — located next to the main jail in Mount Clemens — was closed down in 2009 due to the budget cuts that the county was facing at the time. By reopening the annex, the Sheriff’s Department will be able to temporarily relocate prisoners from the main jail while upgrades are made to other areas of the aging facility.

“With the rise of the population at the county jail, overcrowding has become a problem that the board needed to address as quickly as possible,” said Board Chair Dave Flynn, D-Sterling Heights. “However, the renovation of the annex is obviously a short-term solution to a long-term problem.”

County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham pointed out that there are repairs needed “all over” the jail, which was built in 1954 and, after four additions were made in the ensuing decades, now holds 1,238 prisoners. This is where the annex will come into play. When the Sheriff’s Department closes down one floor of the jail’s 11-story tower for some future renovations, it will have to move the 168 prisoners from that floor to a new location. But because the annex was only built for minimum security, Wickersham will have to strategically relocate prisoners into their new living arrangements.

“It’s kind of a chess game here, where we’re moving prisoners to different areas of the jail while we make all of these necessary repairs,” he said. “There are all different classifications of prisoners, and they all need their own space. Once we reopen that annex, the challenge will be in how we have to maneuver everyone around.”

On Sept. 3, Wickersham issued an overcrowding state of emergency after the county jail had exceeded capacity for seven consecutive days. The emergency was lifted six days later, but overcrowding will continue to be an issue for the facility going forward. Wickersham noted that his office had a study conducted several years ago, which indicated that by 2030 or 2040, the jail would need at least 1,900 beds.

The sheriff is in favor of constructing a brand new jail rather than making yet another addition to the 59-year-old lockup. He hopes to sit down with other county officials in the coming months to discuss the options at their disposal.

“We all need to come together to create a plan for the future of Macomb County that addresses the long-term needs of the jail,” Wickersham said. “In my opinion, adding a new piece to an old structure will not fix this problem — we really need a whole new jail. And that’s a process that will probably take three to five years to complete.”

Hackel, the former sheriff, contended that there are systemic problems within the current jail that must be resolved along the way. He took issue with the fact that at the Macomb County Jail, mental health patients and people with substance abuse problems are housed in the same facility as violent, dangerous criminals.

“We need to have a more efficient way of incarcerating prisoners so that they’re not all brought to the same location no matter what the situation is,” the executive said. “I think we need to start from scratch on this because the system isn’t working the way it should be. What we’re doing now is wrong, so I’m a firm believer that we need to figure out a better way to manage our prisoners.”

Like Wickersham, Hackel is in favor of building a new jail. However, Hackel worried that if these larger management problems are not addressed, the same problems will persist no matter how big of a jail is constructed.

“I would argue that we need a new building,” he said, “but only if we can also solve those efficiency issues at the front end. This isn’t going to be anything that happens overnight, of course — we’re all going to have to sit down and talk it through. But it’s also important for people to realize that we really have no choice here. By law, we have to be able to provide beds for all these prisoners.”

Flynn took a similar stance with regard to the upcoming renovations to the annex. He pointed out that while jail projects like this are never especially popular or glamorous, they are always necessary.

“No one wants to spend money on putting people who have committed crimes in jail,” Flynn said. “It’s very expensive, and taxpayers almost never support it. However, this is also a core function of county government, so it’s something that we must invest in, whether we like it or not.”