By Andrew Jenner
At its meeting earlier this month, the Middle River Regional Jail (MRRJ) Authority Board voted to proceed with a facility planning study that will evaluate options for expanding the jail in Verona.
The regional jail authority will pay Moseley Architects $84,761 to complete the planning study. That payment is in addition to the $57,754 the authority is already paying Moseley Architects to conduct a needs assessment of the jail, according to Superintendent Jeffery Newton.
Together, the needs assessment and facility planning study comprise a Community-Based Corrections Plan, a prerequisite for a jail construction or expansion to receive state funding.
According to a timeline presented to authority board this month, Moseley will complete both parts of the corrections plan by the end of the year. Then it would be submitted in early 2020 to the Virginia Board of Corrections, which must approve it in order for the project to receive state dollars.
The Middle River Regional Jail opened in 2006 with an initial capacity of 396 people. At the time, the regional jail authority had just three members: Augusta County plus the cities of Waynesboro and Staunton. In 2015, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County joined the regional authority, after deciding not to build a new jail of their own in Harrisonburg. According to its website, the jail now has a capacity of 902.
In the last several years, local incarceration has risen steadily, with MRRJ reaching an average daily population of 790 in 2016, 855 in 2017 and 925 in 2018. Last fall, the daily population occasionally topped 1,000. To relieve the pressure, the jail stopped renting space to non-member localities earlier this year. In early June, jail staff reported a total population of 862. In early August, that figure was 849.
In a recent presentation it gave to the jail authority board — made up of three representatives from each member locality — Moseley Architects presented preliminary growth projections for the jail’s population over the next decade. The firm projects the jail population to grow by about 4 percent each year, reaching an average daily population of 1,266 by fiscal year 2029.
Newton, the jail superintendent, told The Citizen that those projections are only for inmates from the five member jurisdictions, and they assume that the jail in downtown Harrisonburg will continue to hold 300 people. He cautioned that the projected average daily population in FY29 of 1,266 is a preliminary figure, and said it will not necessarily be used as a target for planning an expansion.
“It’s pretty fluid at this point in time,” said Newton, who began working at the MRRJ in June.
He said the decision in 2015 to expand the membership of the jail authority to include Harrisonburg and Rockingham County “shortened the life expectancy” of the facility original built to serve three localities. Given that history, and the fact that other localities in the region are also facing jail space shortages, the regional jail might consider needs of other localities during the upcoming planning process.
Newton added that various diversionary programs designed to minimize the number of people held in local jails, including drug courts and probation, are well developed in Virginia. As a result, he said, he doesn’t foresee additional opportunities to curtail the jail population.
If the board decides to proceed with an expansion, the earliest the General Assembly could consider appropriating money for the project would be its 2021 session, with construction potentially beginning after that. According to the formal service agreement signed by all five MMRJ localities, expanding the facility requires approval from at least four of their five city councils or boards of supervisors.
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