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Jail expansion could get warmer reception from Rockingham Co. supervisors

By Logan Roddy, contributor

As the Rockingham County supervisors prepare to hear Middle River Regional Jail’s pitch for a $40 million expansion, the supervisors signaled that they’ll be a more receptive audience than some of the other local government bodies that fund the jail.

Rockingham County’s Board of Supervisors meeting Wednesday will be the fifth and final stop on Jail Superintendent Jeffery Newton’s round of presentations about the expansion. The jail’s authority board seeks the required approval from four of the five local governments — Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta and Rockingham counties — to move ahead with the plans. 

Some Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro city council members, as well as Augusta County administrators have expressed concerns about the cost of state-responsible inmates at Middle River, and several Harrisonburg City Council members said they had ethical concerns over expanding the jail itself. The expansion request also comes as local governments have seen shrinking tax bases and budgets as a result of the pandemic. 

Built in 2006 for a capacity of 396 inmates, the jail has exceeded 1,000 inmates at times and now houses a population of about 800, Newton said. About 300 are from the state prison system and have not yet been transferred to the Department of Corrections to complete their sentences.

“We don’t choose who is incarcerated, but we are responsible for providing for them,” said Sallie Wolfe-Garrison, the supervisor of Rockingham’s District 2. “It’s not just room and board, but also a place for improvement of self so that they don’t come back.”

Wolfe-Garrison, whose district includes Dayton, as well as Singers Glen, Edom, Linville, Mt. Clinton, Silver Lake and a portion of Hinton, said the supervisors’ foremost responsibility is ensuring that the facilities and its services meet the standards of care.

The $40 million expansion plan would add 352 new beds and expand the facility’s mental health services and community corrections housing for those on work release. It also would include renovations to the laundry, food and water service units. 

“The things most important to me are not only that we make a facility that provides safe and helpful opportunities for residing there — there also has to be space for services to be provided there,” Wolfe-Garrison said. “I think it needs to be a far more comprehensive purpose than just adding beds.”

She cited the increased funding over the past few years for services, such as the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board and the city’s Drug Treatment Board, as necessary for reducing the jail’s population and ensuring that recently released inmates don’t fall into the cycle of recidivism. Of those incarcerated at Middle River, more than half have served a sentence there before.

She also said she’d like to see community organizations invest more resources and effort to help support people who have been incarcerated. She compared it to the infrastructure in place for refugee resettlement. 

“We have individuals who come in from other countries that are sponsored and aided by having assistance gathering housing and finding jobs and personal needs, but we don’t do that for individuals in our community who may have made some decisions that were less than optimal and got caught for it and spent some time in jail,” she said. “That’s not the role of a government locality — that is a community-based level of support that needs to be done in conjunction with whatever systems are in place by parole and things of that nature.”

Rick Chandler — supervisor from District 3, which includes Grottoes, Melrose, Keezletown, Massanetta Springs, Cross Keys, Port Republic and a portion of Penn Laird — said he agreed the best way to approach the issue would be with a combination of expansion as well as community reinvestment.

“We need to see if we can look at something that’s more of a hybrid,” he said. “What kinds of things need to be done now without expanding?”

He also said a similar conversation should happen in the General Assembly to allow local judges more latitude to alleviate the burden on the regional jail system by using more electronic monitoring and other options like work release programs.

“There are judges that are willing to do more in that regard. If the General Assembly gets on board and some changes can be made there where the local judges can be given more discretion then that would be tremendously added value,” Chandler said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic added a layer of unpredictability to the Department of Corrections’ housing of inmates in regional jails. 

Newton, the Middle River Regional Jail superintendent, said the proposed plan doesn’t address the jail’s projected need for 1,200 beds by 2029. 

“It only gets you halfway there,” Newton said. “We need to do some pretty radical justice reform if we’re not going to be talking about an expansion again in 10 years.”

William B. Kyger, supervisor of District 4, said he’d like to see a focus on more restorative measures of justice instead of punitive. Kyger represents Bridgewater and Mount Crawford, the North River area, and the communities of Briery Branch, Montezuma, Pleasant Valley, Ottobine, and a portion of Hinton. 

“I may lean to support construction of facilities at Middle River that will enhance our ability to deal with those who have mental health issues so that they can come back into society and not repeat the same mistakes,” Kyger said. “I just hope we, as a society, can … get to the point where we invest more money in mental health in advance of issues, so we move the reactive to the proactive.”

At last week’s Middle River Regional Jail authority board meeting, board members discussed how an estimated 70% of the jail’s inmates struggle with a mental illness, substance addiction — or both. 

“People are not criminally intent,” Kyger said. “They are acting out of either a socioeconomic need to survive, or because they have some mental incapacity or illness that is keeping them from filtering right from wrong, and we tend to deal with it historically in more punitive measures rather than restorative measures. The progress is going to be slow, but it has to be steady.”

Kyger and Chandler both said bolstering mental health training for first responders and services like crisis intervention teams and emergency rooms help ensure people are getting the care and treatment they need.

“It seems to me that if we rehabilitate one person of whoever’s in the Drug Treatment Court, it’s working,” Kyger said. “We didn’t get to this place overnight. We’re dealing with over a four hundred year history of a criminal justice system that we inherited when we came from England.”

Dewey L. Ritchie — District 1 supervisor, who oversees Broadway, Timberville and the communities of Fulks Run, Bergton, Criders, Lacey Spring and Tenth Legion — said he’s still waiting until all the information is presented to make a decision.

“I think it’s going to have to be a transitional thing,” Ritchie said. “I think a great deal is caused by the Department of Corrections not moving people from that locality to DOC that has been sentenced there by the court.”

District 5 supervisor Michael A. Breeden did not return a message The Citizen left at his Rockingham County office.

Clarification: The story was updated to make it clear that four out of the five member jurisdictions must sign off on an expansion.


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