County explores building new jail.

March 8, 2022

County explores building new jail.

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By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

HART — The Oceana County Jail is over 50 years old and is in serious need of replacement, according to Oceana County Sheriff Craig Mast and Corrections Division Lt. Mark Schneider.

Upgrading the current jail built in 1967 is not feasible because it would cost at least $4-6 million, said Sheriff Mast. 

The jail has energy, light and mechanical deficiencies and no ventilation system, they said. Poor air quality is a major concern. Technology is outdated.

“We’re kicking around the idea of building a new jail,” said Mast. “We need to look at what the community needs.

“In an effort to try to address the issues, we’ve had some experts come in. They did an energy audit, a lighting audit and a mechanical audit. One of the things we found is that the air quality in the jail is extremely poor.” 

Honeywell performed the air quality audit, reporting high carbon dioxide levels, especially in the cells. “If it becomes much higher, it’s going to become a health risk,” said Mast. Honeywell’s estimate to fix the ventilation is $4-6 million. 

Poor air quality raises other concerns. “The first thing on everybody’s mind is if we’re spreading COVID,” said the sheriff.

“The place has been fitted with a hodgepodge of different air conditioning and ventilation units. There are like 17 different air conditioning units,” said Mast.

The county building needs more office space, so the jail cells could be used as document vaults if a new jail is constructed.

Maximum capacity is 66, and the jail currently is housing over 50 inmates. In the summer, inmate numbers rise significantly.

There is no estimate yet on the cost of building a new jail, the size or the location. “We’re right on the front end of this process,” said Mast.

“The county commissioners asked us to gather some information from other counties that recently built new jails,” said Schneider, who is the jail administrator. 

“We have ballot language to examine as an option for a millage,” he said.

The Oceana County facility has surpassed the normal lifespan of a jail. “It’s usually around 30 years, and then you’re starting to see people have talks about new facilities,” said Schneider.

There were lower inmate numbers  — 20-30 inmates — when COVID-19 first hit. “Court cases are still building up, and people are waiting to come to jail. Right now, there are over 600 failure-to-appear warrants,” said Schneider.

“We’re in a pinch now, and with the facility getting worse, we can no longer find parts for doors to fix security,” said Schneider.

Modern jails use pods to supervise multiple cells at the same time. “Our jail is a linear jail,” said Mast. 

A new portion was added in 1986. 

The kitchen is small and cramped, and there is limited storage space throughout the facility. Administrative offices are small and overloaded with paperwork and supplies.

The Oceana County facility has jail bars, which are a hanging risk. Inmates also throw feces through the bars at officers. The outdated bars need to be replaced with plexiglass.

The holding tank, which has plexiglass, is the newest portion of the jail. It was paid for mainly by inmates through the commissary fund. “It’s a restricted fund — it can only be used for things that benefit the jail,” said Schneider. 

“There are seven or eight coats of paint on the walls,” he said.

Rusted and moldy vents can be seen throughout the jail. Human skin cells that get trapped in doorways due to a lack of ventilation are visible.

The jail has no staff bathrooms or drinking fountains, so staff members have to go upstairs to the sheriff’s office to use restrooms.

The jail also lacks a rack system for inmates’ clothing. Their clothes are stored in small lockers that become smelly and moldy. 

“It’s not a Holiday Inn, but beyond comfort, it has to be safe,” said Mast. “We’re talking about safety and security for the inmates, the community and for our staff.”

Companies are hired to handle asbestos cleanup in the jail. 

There is only one small room for inmates to attend court hearings via Zoom video conferencing. The tiny room is also the only space for inmate meetings with their attorneys, counselors and representatives from other agencies. 

Doorways are too narrow to move an unruly inmate in a restraint chair. 

Electrical outlets are limited in the cells, and many inmates must be connected to sleep apnea devices. 

Newer jails have a day room where inmates can walk around. “Most of the time, we only have two staff on duty, so we can’t provide rec for these people,” said Schneider. There is a rec area in the basement, but an officer must be stationed down there for inmates to use it. There is a very small fenced-in yard outside with no grass. “There is sunlight and there is fresh air — that’s it,” said Mast.

Cracks in the porcelain toilet in the women’s cell pose another safety risk. Other jails have stainless steel toilets.

Flooding in the basement creates mold.

Employees have complained of sinus issues caused by the poor air quality.

Because there are not individual cells like in new jails, corrections officers must handle the task of shuffling inmates around to prevent fights from erupting. “Sometimes we have to put guys that hate each other together,” said Schneider. “Incident reports within the jail have gone up tremendously in the last few years.”

Approximately 1,900 people are booked into the jail each year.

“You’re being asked in this day and age to stay professional,” said Schneider. “You have to have the assets to be professional. All of our employees have stepped up to the plate to fix stuff, like fixing pipes.”

A new jail will require additional staffing to oversee a larger facility.

In the basement, cracks are visible along the building’s main support beam.

The jail was originally built so the sheriff and his family could live on the premises. What are now the administrative offices were once living quarters. What used to be the dispatch center in the basement now is used for a small conference room, the detective bureau and a temporary evidence room. 

“We’re lacking in this area as well,” said Schneider of the basement. “If we host a class down here, we always have to limit class size,” said Mast. “It’s pretty tight.”

Corrections officers are required to complete 20 hours of training annually. The basement room is not large enough, so training takes place off-site. “We always have to go somewhere else,” said the lieutenant. 

“The structure speaks for itself,” said Schneider. “Nobody would keep a professional business going with the structural damage that we have.”

“Commissioners will formally discuss the idea of a new sheriff’s department and jail facility on March 10 during the finance committee meeting, chaired by Commissioner Craig Hardy,” said Oceana County Administrator Robert Sobie. “The discussion will include the importance of a public safety millage to support the project and to further enhance public safety efforts in the county — a topic that has surfaced a few times in recent years.

“The current facility is nearly 60-years-old and needs several million dollars of improvements to make it a viable facility for the next 10-15 years,” said Sobie. “Beyond that, in my opinion, there would be considerable uncertainty about the facility.

“This project idea is timely because the board of commissioners has reduced some tax levies in the county in prior years that creates today’s opportunity to consider a new millage to support a core government responsibility — but the net effect on taxpayers will be lower because of the earlier reductions in tax levies.”

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