Hburg council offers chilly reception to jail expansion plan

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Members of the Harrisonburg City Council expressed concerns about and, in some cases, outright opposition to a proposed expansion of the Middle River Regional Jail as the jail’s leader made his pitch Tuesday night. While the council didn’t take any vote on the issue, the discussion signaled that jail officials might have an uphill climb to convince Harrisonburg to kick as much as $1.2 million more a year for the city’s share of a nearly $40 million expansion.  

“It sounds like the five of us stand united when it comes to halting and questioning what’s happening with the jail expansion project,” Council Member Chris Jones said at the end of the meeting.

Jail Superintendent Jeffery Newton presented an expansion plan that would add 352 beds, a larger medical clinic, more food service space and a new laundry to the facility, in addition to other renovations. The revised expansion plan would cost a total of $39.5 million, a walk-back from previous plans of a $96.5 million expansion.

Newton said the jail currently has about 800 inmates and has topped 1,000 at times. The facility serves five communities, which also help pay for the jail: Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro. It opened in 2006 with a capacity of 396, although Newton said “core functions” — such as the kitchen, plumbing and heating systems — were built to accommodate about 600.

Newton said if a person arrested is ordered to the jail, “we do not have the authority to say ‘No, we’re full, go away.’”

The jail’s board is seeking state funding for 25% — or $9.9 million — of the expansion costs. If the expansion is carried out, the board would then seek to issue a bond for the remaining $29.6 million. The five member jurisdictions would then be responsible for paying the debt service on that bond, as well as increased personnel and other operational costs. 

Newton said the total cost increase to Harrisonburg would be about $1.2 million annually, which would more than double what the city currently spends on the jail. In fiscal year 2019, Harrisonburg paid $1 million to the jail for debt service and operating expenses. 

Council members’ responses to the presentation touched on ethical and financial concerns.

Council Member Laura Dent asked Newton if inmates were ever brought in for being unable to pay child support or fees.

“If they’re placed in our custody by the court, yes,” Newton said. 

“The Supreme Court has ruled debtor’s prisons unconstitutional,” Dent said. Inmates “really can’t pay child support from jail,” and an expanded work release program would be a better solution, she added.

Both Dent and Jones took issue with the fact that approximately 200, or one in four, inmates currently incarcerated at Middle River Regional Jail are “state-responsible” inmates who are awaiting transfer to a prison run by the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Newton said the Department of Corrections pays the jail $4 each day to hold a state-responsible inmate. That goes up to $12 per day once that inmate is approved for transport. But he said it currently costs the jail about $56 a day to house each inmate. 

Newton said it’s common for a state-responsible inmate to serve an entire three-year sentence at Middle River without being transferred to prison.

“We talk about DOC as if they’re a mystical figure,” Jones said. He suggested member jurisdictions might consider pressuring the Department of Corrections to “come get your people … because we certainly can’t afford more debt service.” 

“It’s a problem that’s been here for years, and we haven’t developed a solution for it,” Newton said.

But the council members questioned whether the overall approach of the criminal justice system is costly, not only in tax dollars for communities like Harrisonburg but also for the lives of inmates. 

Jones said incarcerating so many people doesn’t make sense “unless the person is violent, unless the person is bringing drugs or something into the community … that’s not the majority of the people we have incarcerated from our community.”

“If we’re going to be putting money into something, we need to be putting money into our community,” Reed said, “so that we’re not overcrowding the jails, because we are investing in existing programs for criminal justice reform here in Harrisonburg.” 

Council member George Hirschmann said he was in “listening mode” on Tuesday but was concerned about “how much we’re spending for what we’re not getting.”

Vice Mayor Sal Romero expressed concerns about the jail’s high rate of recidivism. The Staunton News Leader reported in 2017 that, of the 838 inmates at Middle River on one day that year, “nearly 70 percent had been there before.”

Romero said he’s heard “quite a bit of outcry” opposing the expansion from local residents. 

Because the presentation was not a formal public hearing, city residents couldn’t call in to comment about the jail Tuesday. But the meeting agenda did include attachments with 15 written comments opposing the expansion. 

“When up to 30% of those locked up in our jails have known mental health issues, resolution should begin with mental health personnel, not the police,” Anne Nielsen wrote in one comment – a statistic even lower than that determined by Blue Ridge Court Services. 

In their fiscal year 2019 report, the court services unit stated that every defendant arrested and detained at Middle River Regional Jail goes through a mental health screening. Over a third  “qualified as having a serious mental illness” – three hundred seventy-four inmates out of 1,050 screened.

Local residents also mentioned racial disparities between the jail population and regional demographics.

“Black and brown people are disproportionately represented,” Hannah Bailey wrote. “Harrisonburg residents do not want a bigger jail!”

A Freedom of Information Act request recently filed by grassroots group Communities Against Middle River Jail Expansion showed that, as of Jan. 24, 22% of the jail’s inmates are Black. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the combined population of the five member jurisdictions is 6% Black. 

Also in the meeting:

  • The council unanimously appointed Thanh Dang, who is the assistant director of community development, to serve as interim zoning administrator until the position is filled. Dang will fill in for previous Zoning Administrator Rachel Drescher, who accepted another job outside of Harrisonburg.
  • Deputy City Manager Ande Banks announced that funding applications for the Community Development Block Grant program are due by noon Feb. 25 and that a public hearing on the selection committee’s proposed grant allocations would be held during the March 23 council meeting. 

Editor’s note, 9:09 a.m.: This story has been corrected to show that the combined population of the five member jurisdictions is 6% Black, not 8% as originally published.

Editor’s note, Feb. 8, 2021: This story has been corrected with Thanh Dang’s actual title.

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