Delta County explores possible jail space

ESCANABA – As Delta County continues to address the concerns and needs for a new county jail, one area being explored is retrofitting existing county space to house such a facility.

Members of the Delta County Board of Commissioners met with jail consultants from Grand Rapids Tuesday during a walk-through of vacant space formerly occupied by Pathways Community Mental Health at the Delta County Service Center. Their mission? To see if retrofitting the approximately 23,000 square feet of space for a jail is feasible.

Delta County Administrator Nora Viau asked the jail consultants to visit Delta County for the walk-through during a recent trip they made to Marquette County to help with their jail plans.

“We asked them is it feasible to consider doing this because if you build a new jail, we’ve been told in the past it could cost anywhere from $30 million to maybe $35 million to build a new jail,” said Delta County Board Vice-Chair Mary Harrington. “If you can get by and retrofit a building for maybe $8 million or $9 million, you’d be foolish not to look at doing that.”

Harrington noted unlike Marquette County, Delta County does not have the option to add onto it, so all areas are being explored for a new facility.

“This is all very preliminary,” she said. “We can’t close our options out to anything right now. With the condition of the jail, you really don’t know from day to day what you’re going to experience over there.”

Viau had no cost estimate for retrofitting this space, but said the consultants will look over the space they toured as well as the potential cost.

“They’re going to look at everything that’s there,” she said. “They were really pleased with the ceiling height (during the walk-through) so that’s good.”

Ultimately all possible options for a new jail will be explored moving forward, she said.

But as of now Harrington said retrofitting existing space is likely a better option than asking taxpayers to fund the construction of a brand-new jail facility.

“How do you put out for a millage in your community to build a new jail?” she asked. “Me, as a taxpayer, do I want to pay extra tax dollars? I’d rather put it out to the schools or for road patrol or community action. There’s millages all over. I’d rather pay to them than to pay $35 million on housing inmates and most people, I think, are of the same mindset.”

The present jail facility was originally built in 1964 with a new section added on in 1999. During a tour of the facility in February, Delta County Sheriff Gary Ballweg noted the jail was built to be occupied by minimum security inmates, but as time passed, more and more inmates became increasingly violent and now require higher maintenance.

With the growing number of inmates at the jail, overcrowding, too, becomes a concern.

The building is also in poor condition, which has been addressed by several actions taken by the board over the years to patch up the current facility.

Particularly over the last few years, many maintenance issues have been addressed, such as the installation of a new roof, improvements to ventilation and air-handling, and the installation of a new boiler system to heat both the jail and courthouse facilities.

During the jail tour, Ballweg noted the ideal jail facility would be pie-shaped so an officer can see all cells from sitting in one place.

Prior to the jail tours, Ballweg held a meeting with all jail stakeholders in January to highlight the jail’s concerns, shortcomings, and need for a new facility.