Sheriff Ballweg: Delta County needs new jail facility

ESCANABA – Several local law enforcement agencies, county departments, and community members were represented Monday morning during a Delta County Board Committee of the Whole meeting concerning the future of the Delta County Jail facility.

According to Delta County Sheriff Gary Ballweg, the goal of Monday’s meeting was to make the community aware of the needs of a new jail in the community.

The recommendation for the meeting involving all jail stakeholders stemmed from discussion of understaffing at the jail late last year.

The current Delta County Jail facility was built in 1964, back when the jail had a capacity for 46 inmates. In 1999, a 41-bed addition was constructed, raising the total capacity of the jail to 87 inmates.

When Ballweg first began working in the current jail in 1977, they averaged eight to 20 inmates at a time.

“When people committed felonies in the 60s or early 70s most likely you went to prison,” he said. “You didn’t sit around in the jail for months and months.”

As time went on, the jail saw more prisoners at their facility, prompting the 1999 addition, which was intended as a short-term fix for the jail.

The new addition provided four housing units, all of which were low security, though today such lower security inmates rarely exist.

Now many inmates exhibit aggressive behaviors that require higher maintenance.

Additionally, there have been many maintenance needs addressed in the current jail building. Over the last few years, a new roof has been installed and improvements have been made to address ventilation and air-handling issues. A new boiler system was also installed to heat both the jail and courthouse facilities.

Despite these improvements, Ballweg said as of mid-January, the jail has already spent this entire fiscal year’s maintenance budget, due in part to expensive parts that need repair.

He also highlighted three jail feasibility studies that have been conducted over the years.

The first was commissioned by the county board in 2006. Back then, discussion included a potential remodel and addition to the current jail, the demolition of the current jail and construction of a new facility at that site, or the construction of a new jail in a different location – which would also require the addition of some holding cells and restrooms at the county courthouse for inmates. Ballweg estimated the cost for such a facility in two or three years down the line could be approximately $30 million.

A second jail feasibility study conducted in 2008-2009 and commissioned by the Michigan Department of Corrections looked at all 15 counties in the Upper Peninsula. The study examined jail conditions, occupancy, and plans for each county in the U.P. as the foundation for identifying potential partnerships.

According to this study, neither the old jail nor the 1999 addition “are efficiently designed in terms of movement, sight lines, activities, services, inmate supervision, and staffing.”

The report also indicated the jail needs to be replaced by a facility that will be safer, more secure and staff-efficient, and that the old jail “is becoming very difficult to maintain,” noting plumbing system repairs at the time were costly since the concrete floors needed to be excavated to get to broken and leaking pipes.

A third study in 2008-09 was funded by a grant from the Hannahville Indian Community and involved Delta, Menominee and Marquette counties. According to Ballweg, at the time discussion centered on finding a way to have a facility for inmates requiring mental health or drug and alcohol addiction services.

One of the growing problems with the higher maintenance inmates the jail sees today are the large volumes of mental health needs or those that suffer from such drug and alcohol abuse.

“I’ve seen statistics in Michigan where they say up to 90 percent of the people in our facilities need some sort of a mental health, drug or alcohol program,” said Ballweg, noting this could range from someone who requires hospitalization to someone attending a group session once a week.

Currently, the jail also uses the services of a few medical professionals inside the building for a combined 42 hours a week, helping inmates with their medical needs.

However, this can be time consuming for a corrections officer who must stay with the inmate when they visit the medical professional; officers also hand deliver medications to inmates each day, another of their time consuming duties.

Another drawback with the existing facility highlighted by Ballweg is its lack of a recreation for inmates. He said allowing an inmate to spend time outside would make them easier to manage.

“Ideally we do need a facility,” said Ballweg. “I think it should be somewhere else because if we build a new jail here or add onto this jail, what are we going to do 20 years from now or 30 years from now when we need more space?”

Ballweg noted one aspect to keep in mind when discussing a new jail facility is that the current facility is connected to the sheriff’s department which houses the road patrol officers, detective, sheriff and undersheriff, front desk area, search and rescue and dive teams. If the jail were to move, the sheriff’s department would also need to move, he said.

Following Ballweg’s presentation, Delta County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Davis suggested setting a target date for a new jail to commit to a project and work from there.

Delta County Prosecuting Attorney Steven Parks added that gathering a group of people to analyze and evaluate funding sources for a new jail would be important in the process as well, while Delta County Commissioner Ann Jousma Miller said she believes all stakeholders of the jail need to be on the same wave length moving forward.

“If we aren’t all on the same wave length, we can’t look to the future as to what are the needs of the people here in Delta County and how can we best service those needs, not necessarily by just building another building, but having adequate facilities so that we take care of our community,” she said.

Jousma Miller added dropping a half-million dollars into repairs at the current jail facility is also not being fiscally responsible.

“We need to begin to think now as to what is it this community needs, wants and is responsible for,” she said.