Jail tour highlights need for new facility in Delta County

ESCANABA – Local government officials and community leaders took part in a tour of the Delta County Jail Wednesday to see firsthand the needs for a new jail facility.

The current jail consists of an older section first occupied in 1964 and a newer section built in 1999.

“It was built to be occupied by minimum security inmates and now that’s not the case,” said Delta County Sheriff Gary Ballweg, prior to the tour.

The inmates now housed at the jail are more violent and require higher maintenance, according to Lt. Jason Thibeault, jail administrator, who has worked at the facility for 23 years.

“When I first started, the inmates did have some self-respect,” he said. “They cared to some degree. Today they don’t care. They’re very, very high maintenance. The majority of them are on some type of illegal drug. They’re detoxing sometimes up to 12 days.”

The number of inmates the jail takes in is also growing. There were 1,463 inmates booked at the jail in 2013, and the average daily population in August was over 100, well over the facility’s capacity of 85 inmates. The number of women at the jail has also skyrocketed.

“Throughout the years the female population has gone up triple. Sometimes we have 26 females in here,” he said, suggesting the male-to-female population ratio is about eight-to-one.

Thibeault estimates 80 percent of inmates at the Delta County Jail are on some prescription drug and a large percentage of inmates require some type of medication once they are in the jail.

“Just last week we had 64 inmates,” he said. “Out of the 64 inmates, 45 of them were on medication and some of those are psychiatric medications.”

During the tour, Thibeault pointed out areas of concerns in the current jail facility.

One of the cells he showed had two sink holes which have since been patched up as best as possible. In addition, the bars in some cells have needed to be repaired since they are unsecure and some doors in the facility have been unable to close.

The current kitchen area in the jail also has no more room to expand from its small space – a drawback as the facility feeds 90 to 100 inmates at a time. Food has also been stored in the basement area due to the lack of storage space.

The jail has also had plumbing issues. In particular, the basement sees flooding that has not only ruined food stored there, but also equipment of the sheriff department’s dive rescue team kept downstairs.

“The building has exceeded what you can get out of a building,” said Thibeault. “This is a 24/7, 365 day operation. it’s not something you work for eight hours and go home.”

The basement area also used to function as a recreation area for inmates, but safety concerns due to heightened violence has since prevented using the basement for these purposes. The jail offers no programming for inmates because they have no room to do so.

Because of this inmates are always stuck in their cells except for visitation or to talk with their attorney. Thibeault noted televisions in the cells help keep the inmates’ minds occupied. Otherwise they would have more chances to get into mischief.

But even a little time spent out of their cells can help.

“A lot of inmates would prefer to go to prison than to sit in a county jail because it’s really hard time here,” he said. “Prison time they get out for rec, they have jobs, they have programs. In here, you sit.”

Another major issue facing the jail is understaffing.

The Michigan Department of Corrections came into the jail last year and recommended the county hire six additional officers to keep the jail adequately staffed for safety and security purposes amid tight financial times.

Moving forward, the jail is trying to identify funding sources for a potential jail in a new location.

“The ideal facility of course would be one that’s kind of pie-shaped where an officer…could actually see all the cells from sitting in one place,” said Ballweg.

According to Ballweg, the ideal facility would also include between 140 and 150 beds. A location of such a jail facility is still being discussed.

“The county has a lot of property that’s suitable for any size new building and room for the future,” he said. “They have a lot of property over there by where the MSU Extension agency is and the health department. That’s an ideal place for one, but the airport has lots of room too, so there are other options too.”

The jail tour was one of three opportunities provided to local government officials and community leaders. Previously, Ballweg held a stakeholder meeting in January to discuss the shortcomings of the current jail facility and the needs of a new jail.