Officials, inmates share cramped quarters
SYCAMORE – Roger Scott remembers first approaching the DeKalb County Board in 1990 regarding the space issues in the county jail.
Inmates already were double-bunked in the jail, which was built in 1980, and officials knew it would get worse, said Scott, the DeKalb County sheriff. A study suggested planning for an expansion should begin at that point.
Over the years, other studies of the DeKalb County Jail have been done, bringing recommendations for addressing the growing population. Scott said all of those ideas – including electronic home monitoring and drug court – have been implemented, except an expansion of the jail.
The County Board’s approval this week of a $27 million to $33 million expansion plan for the jail is a positive and much-needed step in accommodating the growing jail population, Scott said.
“We’ve got a plan and it’s been approved,” he said. “It’s never been a passion of mine to build a jail, but it’s certainly my responsibility to do all that I can to see that it gets done.”
But things are on hiatus while the 2nd District Appellate Court decides whether the landfill expansion that would fund the jail expansion will be allowed. An anti-landfill expansion group contends that the public hearing process leading up to the County Board’s May 2010 vote was unfair.
The county has proposed paying for a larger jail through the expansion of the DeKalb County Landfill, taking trash from other counties and charging a tipping fee. That fee in turn would be used to expand the jail.
A decision is expected in the next two to six months.
Lt. Joyce Klein, who manages the jail, said it’s tough to say which is the jail’s biggest problem: the lack of beds or the lack of proper beds.
The jail was designed to house 60 inmates. On a typical day recently, 87 people were in the jail, 55 were being held in Boone or Kendall county jails.
A room normally used by attorneys to speak with their clients sometimes holds an inmate if the jail is at capacity after a busy weekend. The same is done with the visitation room. If no holding cells are free, prisoners sometimes are left handcuffed to the booking bench.
“It’s a constant challenge to try to find a place to put someone,” she said.
Many of the jail’s spaces have been repurposed to accommodate the lack of space. A former physical fitness room for inmates became the video room, where inmates appear in court via closed-circuit TV.
What was an employee break room became the booking room more than 10 years ago. A cell block intended for four inmates now houses six, and another designed for seven holds 10. Klein said the jail wasn’t designed to have inmates double-bunked in cells.
Four holding cells are regularly occupied. Ideally, holding cells are for prisoners who are intoxicated, going through drug withdrawal, on suicide watch or have violated jail rules.
“So we have all these reasons for using holding cells and we only have four of them,” Klein said.
Jail employees have no locker rooms and little or no space to store personal items. Klein said an employee break room is a necessity that can not be cut from the expansion plan. Storing all of the inmates’ belongings is a challenge as well.
Lockers hold some inmate personal items, but plastic bins were purchased to contain additional inmate property, and they sit atop the lockers. They are stored in the kitchen and mechanical room, too.
“We have found every nook and cranny in this building,” Klein said. “There are no more nooks and crannies.”
The lack of space has cost about $4.4 million since 2004, when the county began sending inmates to neighboring Boone and Kendall counties, Klein said.
The out-of-county housing also has had a ripple effect on the judicial process. Attorneys whose clients are in Boone or Kendall counties aren’t able to visit their clients as often, which in turn leads to court delays.
The jail expansion, expected to cost $27 million, would increase occupancy to a minimum of 163 beds, although jail officials hope that number could be as high as 221.
The existing public safety building would expand east, closing the north half of the 100 block of North Locust Street.
The new first floor would include storage, a booking center and health care area for inmates, among other things. A sally port will have at least four parking spots and the ability to drive through.
The second and third floors would have cells, with sections for inmates with special needs on the second floor. Officers in central posts would have full view of the area – a security upgrade from the rounds process corrections staff use now.
Everything in the current building will remain the same except the kitchen, which will be gutted to make way for a skywalk connecting the buildings, Klein said.
The construction could begin as early as April 2014, county Finance Director Gary Hanson said.
Scott and Klein said the plan to pay for the expansion through landfill tipping fees is a good alternative to tax increases, which were denied by voters in referendums four times, including in 2004 and 2006, County Administrator Ray Bockman said.
Scott said he suspects the landfill expansion will be successful. If that revenue source doesn’t come through, Bockman said the county plans to use general obligation bonds, which require voter approval.
Jails and prisons aren’t popular with people, Klein and Scott said, which could be why it has taken so long for the expansion project to get off the ground. But costs to house inmates elsewhere have mounted, and the need for space remains.
“That’s the frustration,” Klein said. “You want to be owners, not renters.”