August Ballot Has Another Proposal for Ingham County Voters: New Jail

Monday, July 16, 2018, 7:18 am
By: 
Chris Root

Above: A section of the Ingham County jail housing male inmates, two per cell behind thin windows. Photos by David Wiley.

East Lansing residents who live in Ingham County will see two proposals on their August 7 ballot: one on a 20-year millage to build a new Ingham County jail and court complex, along with another on the East Lansing City income tax. ELi has been reporting on the income tax proposal extensively. Today, we bring  information about the Ingham County proposal.

What’s the Ingham millage proposal, and what will it cost property owners if it passes?

The Ingham County ballot question is “for the purpose of constructing, equipping, and financing a new combined justice complex facility and expanding correctional programming, to include a new county jail, Sheriff’s department offices, and court facilities….” The new complex would replace existing jail and court buildings in Mason.

To pay for this new facility and additional programming related to the jail, Ingham County voters are being asked to support a millage increase of 0.85 of one mill ($0.85 per $1,000 of state taxable valuation) for 20 years, from 2018 to 2037.

That means that if you own a property worth $200,000 in Ingham County, if it passes, the millage would increase your annual property taxes by about $85 per year.

This ballot question is identified as “County: Ingham County Justice Millage Question” and it appears next to “City: City of East Lansing Ballot Question” for ballots in the portion of East Lansing that is in Ingham County, as shown below.

The County’s case for building a new jail and court complex:

In an effort to gain support for the millage, Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth has been making presentations about the proposal, and Sheriff’s Office personnel have been giving tours of the jail. I attended both such events during the last week of June, to learn about the jail and who is held there as well as their rationale for building a new facility.

The Ingham County jail, located in the county seat of Mason, about 13 miles south of East Lansing, opened in 1963 and expanded in 1984. Wriggelsworth says, “We are operating a jail from Andy Griffith time.” Repeatedly, he says that replacing the jail “is not a want, it’s a need.”

When I asked Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner, who represents a large chunk of East Lansing, why he supports the millage, he answered: “If anybody had a friend or loved one who came into contact with law enforcement, they would want better for them than the present Ingham County Jail. Nor would anyone want to work in a facility in that condition.” Grebner continued, “the real pressure isn't the present condition of the jail, but the condition it will be in 10 or 20 years from now.​”

The FAQs document provided by the County explains Grebner’s last point: “The maintenance of the current building and the immediate repairs needed would cost millions of dollars over the next few years and the building will still need to be replaced. Major repairs are needed just to keep the building operating safely for the employees and the inmates housed in the facility. Investing in repairing the deteriorating building and then building a new facility in the future would cost taxpayers more overall.”

When asked by ELi whether the millage would benefit East Lansing and MSU, Carol Koenig, an Ingham County Commissioner from East Lansing and Chair of the Board of Commissioners, focused on the expanded programming that the millage would support.

Koenig said in a statement provided to ELi, “It will increase pre-trial services for everyone, including college kids that make a mistake their first time away from home. It will allow for increased tether, alcohol monitoring, mental health/crisis services for those MSU students who get arrested and think it is the end of the world, when really it is a new start, their first chance to get a handle on issues that may be life-long.”

The Sheriff’s office produced a slide show (downloadable here) that shows many parts of the jail with antiquated equipment and in disrepair. Trying to maintain such an old facility simply isn’t a prudent use of funds, says Jail Administrator Darin Southworth.

Sheriff Wriggelsworth said it also is difficult to retain deputies willing to work in this old facility with poorer security features, little natural light, and cramped workspace. This is the oldest large jail still in use in Michigan, according to the Sheriff, and newer facilities are more desirable workplaces.

Unpleasant conditions affect inmates as well as staff. For example, the air conditioning in the women’s section no longer works. During a hot spell in mid-June, room air conditioners and fans were purchased to keep this area bearable. This kind of jerry-rigged solution, with electrical cords trailing across the floor and wall space, is not optimal in terms of either functionality or security.

Southworth argues that it is impossible to run a jail that meets current best practices regarding either security or programming in this outdated facility. The building is basically a linear structure, with poor visibility, and there is little video coverage in some large parts of the jail. Many doors in the jail must still be opened with manual keys rather than electronic locks.

There are a small number of inmates who are 17 years of age – four people in total in 2018, according to the Sheriff. Under state rules, they must be separated by sight and sound from adult inmates at all times, including for any programming. In the currently-configured jail, this essentially means that these young people are in solitary confinement, even if they are low-risk inmates.

Because of the outdated and inefficient design of the facility, staff are not available to supervise inmates outdoors, so the inmates are not able to spend any time in fresh air unless they are on the work-release program. The only exception is for about eight women housed at the jail who are tending a vegetable garden (above), the produce from which is being given to a food bank.

Plans for a new jail if the millage passes:

The new jail would be built on a very different plan than the current one, with a two-story structure in the round. Deputies in a central area would have good visibility of various sections of inmates situated around the central core on two levels. This “stacking” design is more efficient both for observation and for getting quickly to a disturbance. Improving the efficiency of basic security functions would free up some staff time for providing programming and safely moving inmates to program activities.

The new facility would be built with pre-fabricated “pods” or cells in which bunks, a table, and a sink and toilet and the floor and ceiling are all constructed as one unit and brought to the facility. All the plumbing, heating, and electrical components are accessible from the back of the “pod” and can be repaired by someone behind the row of cells who does not need to be escorted into the area with inmates. This is another added efficiency.

These images from the Sheriff’s office slideshow show design features of the type intended for a new facility.

If the millage is approved, the new jail, court, and Sheriff’s office complex will be built on the same plot of county-owned land in Mason where the current buildings are located. A kitchen and laundry for the jail that were built in 2001 will not be torn down, which will save about $4 million compared to building the complex elsewhere.

Construction could begin in spring 2020 and would be completed no sooner than the end of 2021. New and expanded programming funded by the millage could begin sooner – possibly in January 2019.

Who is held at Ingham County jail:

Michigan’s county jails hold people from the time of arrest through adjudication and also people who have been sentenced to a year or less in jail. (People with sentences of more than a year are held in a state prison.)

The current capacity of the Ingham County jail is 444, and the average length of stay is 21 days. The capacity for which the new jail will be constructed is likely to be about 450, according to Jail Administrator Darin Southworth.

About half the people held at the jail at any one time are there pre-trial; they have not been found guilty of a crime. About 40% of the total number of inmates have been charged with a felony and are pre-trial, according to Johnson. The remaining pre-trial inmates are there on misdemeanor charges. A significant number of people charged with a felony face a bail amount of more than $10,000, and some others are not eligible for a bond at all.

About 10% of people being held in the jail have been sentenced in other counties and placed in the Ingham County jail under a contract with the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). The maximum number of MDOC inmates the Ingham County jail will house at any one time is now 50, a significant reduction over the past few years.

The state pays Ingham County $35 per person, per day to house these inmates. The average daily cost of holding all types of inmates at the Ingham County jail is about $78 per day.

About 80 men in a low-risk category live together in military barrack-style setting, where they are not locked in cells. A number of people housed at the jail are on work-release and leave the jail during the day.

According to the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office 2016 Annual Report, during 2016, 9,187 people were admitted to the jail – 3,742 arrested on felony charges, and 5,445 on misdemeanor charges. Handling this many people is complicated, regarding administration, programming, health screening and care, and other services. There also are high transportation costs for moving 20-50 people per day to court appearances at three different court locations.

What the millage will pay for:

This chart from a flier created by Ingham County [link to pdf “Flier Ingham jail millage”] shows how money raised by the millage would be spent:

If it passes, the millage is expected to raise about $120 million over the twenty-year span, of which about $70 million is expected to be used for construction costs. Ingham County’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) document breaks down this amount: $37 million for the jail; $15.7 million for the Sheriff’s administrative offices; $8.8 million for the 55th District Court; $2.4 million for one Circuit Court courtroom and offices; and $6.2 million for site development.

The County would issue bonds to pay for construction costs of the new facility, at an interest rate of about 3.75% per year. Approximately $30 million in interest cost is included in the millage.

About $20 million is expected to be spent for additional program services. That comes to about $1 million per year over 20 years. Since this money will be used as it is raised from the millage, there are no financing costs.

County Commissioner Grebner told me, “I'm sure we'll start around $1 million per year [for programming]… Whatever money is left after bond repayment will go into programs.​”

Additional services the millage would pay for:

Sheriff Wriggelsworth said on June 25 there are three broad purposes for additional services: provide alternatives to incarceration to lower the population in jail, help people in jail get better life skills for making better decisions, and reduce recidivism.

Several types of programming could receive additional funding as a result of the millage, expanding the services they provide or the number of people who can benefit from them. Ingham County Deputy Controller Teri Morton expects that the largest increase will be in mental health services.

Cynthia Johnson, the Sheriff's Office Intake Referral Coordinator, summarized proposals for additional funding in several areas at a presentation with Wriggelsworth on June 25:

Community and mental health: Increase the number of mental health therapists, including a full-time therapist to assist with emergency services and some screenings. A diversion program for people with a mental health illness might also be expanded.

Pre-trial services: Increase risk assessment investigations and reporting and supervision services in order to move closer to detaining only high-risk arrestees before trial.

Community corrections programs: Expand services for inmates and probationers such as electronic monitoring, preparation for education and job searching, and support groups.

Educational programs: Expand programs such as anger management, trauma and substance abuse, and others. At present, programming is inadequate, especially for the approximately 90 women in the jail.

Restorative justice program: This program is currently unfunded. It has previously benefitted men; it has not been available to women.

If the millage passes, the Ingham County Board of Commissioners will decide how to allocate additional programming funds, probably as part of the Fiscal Year 2020 budget process. It will be considered first by the Law and Courts Committee and then reviewed by the Finance Committee, and then go to a final vote of the Commission near the beginning of November 2018, according to Grebner.

So far, the millage proposal has been receiving broad support throughout Ingham County. The Lansing State Journal’s Editorial Board has called the millage proposal “an easy yes,” although the Editorial Board also added that “voters and commissioners need to do a better job of challenging other initiatives currently being funded by special millage levies.”

Both Mayor Mark Meadows of East Lansing and Mayor Andy Schor of Lansing are not taking an official position on this county millage.

ELi is a nonpartisan news organization and does not tell voters how they should vote.