Sheriff hopes to begin jail study by end of year

By: Jeremy Selweski | C&G Newspapers | Published November 25, 2014

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MACOMB COUNTY — A recent overcrowding emergency at the Macomb County Jail has increased the sense of urgency for county officials to move forward with a study that has been talked about for most of this year, but which still has not gotten off the ground.

This spring, Sheriff Anthony Wickersham made plans to draft a request for proposal (RFP) to submit to consulting firms for the possible construction of a new county jail or making major renovations to the current one. The 60-year-old lockup, located in Mount Clemens, has experienced regular problems with overcrowding and emergency repairs for many years. The new study would help officials determine their best options for upgrading the facility and the estimated cost of each.

While that RFP has not yet been drafted, Wickersham indicated that his goal is to send it out before the end of the year. That would allow county officials to begin working on the long-awaited project in early 2015.

“We’re not quite ready to move this process forward yet,” the sheriff admitted, “but hopefully we will be able to put that RFP together very soon and send it out there. We actually had one RFP written, but we weren’t satisfied with it, so we threw it out. Now we’re going to try to regroup and draft an RFP that we all feel confident about.”

On Oct. 27, Wickersham declared an overcrowding state of emergency at the Macomb County Jail after the facility exceeded its state-rated design capacity for seven consecutive days. The maximum number of inmates that can be housed at the lockup is 1,218.

The jail population needed to be reduced to 1,193 prisoners in order to comply with Michigan law. However, 15 days after Wickersham’s emergency declaration, the jail remained above its legal capacity, so he was forced to turn to Chief Circuit Court Judge John C. Foster.

On Nov. 11, Foster authorized a 20 percent reduction of the original sentences of prisoners with community correction-eligible charges. He also ordered the release of prisoners that “would not present a high risk to the public safety.” As a result of Foster’s actions, 71 inmates were released from the Macomb County Jail over the next 24 hours.

This incident also marked the 14th overcrowding emergency issued at the facility since 2003. The previous declaration took place in September 2013, when the inmate capacity reached 1,241, forcing the first overcrowding emergency at the jail in five years. Still, Wickersham was not convinced that his latest declaration was cause for any immediate concern.

“Last time we had to do this was more than a year ago, so we’ve actually been doing pretty well since then,” he said. “We’ve had a full year without any interruptions.”

Other county leaders agreed with Wickersham about the importance of getting the ball rolling on the jail study, though. Dave Flynn, chair of the Macomb County Board of Commissioners, stated that the data it contains will be crucial in helping officials decide how to proceed with a project that will surely carry a hefty price tag — and likely require a taxpayer-approved millage increase.

“The overcrowding that continually occurs at the jail only emphasizes that we need to address both the short-term and long-term implications of this situation,” said Flynn, a Sterling Heights Democrat. “The sheriff wanted us to take a step back because the first RFP only asked for the cost estimate of constructing a new jail. We need to have a broader approach and take a closer look at the demographics so we can see what our needs are going to be 10, 20 or 30 years down the road.”

County Executive Mark Hackel, the former sheriff, pointed out that this jail issue has been going on for decades in Macomb County. He has been steadfast in his position that the county must first address systemic problems that currently place people with mental health or substance abuse issues in the same facility as violent criminals.

“The problem here is that a lot of people think we can just build our way out of this situation, but that’s just not true,” Hackel said. “Mental health and substance abuse are clearly the biggest issues we have that are causing these overcrowding concerns — so it’s obvious that the system we have in place right now is not working. I think this RFP will give us some clarity and some sense of direction because we’ll have expert, professional opinions to fall back on.”

If no action is taken, Wickersham has estimated that the maintenance costs for the Macomb County Jail would total about $71 million over the next 30 years. Even in the short-term, the county’s five-year capital improvement plan calls for nearly $7 million in jail renovations from 2014-2018.

In October 2013, the Board of Commissioners approved more than $800,000 in repairs to help reopen the jail’s 200-bed annex building. According to Wickersham, ever since that work was completed, prisoners have been shuffled in and out of the annex while renovations are made to other parts of the building. Because some inmates cannot be housed in the minimum-security annex, the lockup’s maximum capacity had to be temporarily lowered from 1,238 to 1,218.

The Macomb Jail was originally built in 1954, and five additions have been made since then. In 2005, the county conducted a study of the facility similar to the one that they hope to do early next year, which indicated that by 2040, it would need at least 1,900 beds. It also resulted in a $93 million proposal to demolish the oldest sections of the existing jail and construct an addition, but officials opted not to move forward with the plan due to a lack of available funds.

Macomb County leaders can expect the cost estimates included with the new study to be even higher than that, but Wickersham said he is not worried about financial projections until after the jail’s needs are addressed and analyzed in detail.

“This is not something that we want to jump to conclusions about,” the sheriff contended. “With a project of this magnitude, we want to make sure we have all the important information at our disposal so that we can do it right.”

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