Council members see need for investment but still not sold on expansion after MRRJ tour

By Logan Roddy, contributor

After a tour of the Middle River Regional Jail on Saturday, Harrisonburg city council members indicated that they still want to explore alternative options to the proposed $40 million expansion plans. 

Council member Laura Dent said that there’s no dispute that the jail is crowded, but she said council members would prefer pursuing other ways, such as systemic changes in the justice system and more alternative programs, to handle the situation than adding more beds. But she said the tour did underscore that some investment is necessary to improve conditions for inmates already there. 

“It’s a sobering experience, to say the least,” Dent said. “And while I recognize that there are things we need to do to upgrade the jail to make it safe for the inhabitants we are responsible for, I’m still not buying the argument that we need to expand the jail.”

Dent, along with Vice Mayor Sal Romero and council member George Hirschmann, toured the facility Saturday. Jail officials invited them as Harrisonburg’s council and leaders of the other four localities that own the regional jail are considering the expansion plans. At least four of the five localities — Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro and Rockingham and Augusta counties — must approve the proposal. So far, Harrisonburg’s city council members have expressed the strongest reservations publicly about spending the additional money to expand the jail.

Dent said the recent emphasis on policies and programs that promote community-based rehabilitation solutions or alternatives to jail has reduced incarceration rates in Harrisonburg and Rockingham.

“We are not increasing incarceration. We have done enough mitigation and diversion of people who would otherwise be in jail through the crisis intervention training, the drug court, the probation services which are an alternative to incarceration because they’re not in jail,” Dent said. “I know that Harrisonburg and Rockingham are in a special position because we have our downtown jail and Middle River is our sort of overflow. But are the other localities doing the CIT and other diversion programs?” 

She said because of wide-ranging social costs, Harrisonburg has a vested interest in other communities reducing incarceration rates too. 

Council member George Hirschmann said in an interview after Saturday’s tour that the recent bottleneck in the justice system caused by the Covid-19 pandemic also is a factor in the overcrowding. 

Middle River Regional Jail Superintendent Jeffery Newton has said in meetings that while there are always inmates from the Department of Corrections being housed at Middle River, that number has increased over the past year because of delays in court proceedings. Dent said Newton also mentioned that again during the tour Saturday. 

“There’s people sitting there that are waiting for a hearing, or waiting for a trial, but they can’t move them through because the justice system’s all backed up,” Hirschmann said. “I don’t see that happening real soon, so we’re out there in the field wondering what’s the best we can do under the circumstances with the possibility that in the end, we say, ‘Here’s $40 million, go ahead and build it.’”

But Hirschmann said it’s imperative that those involved look at other options and approve the expansion only as a last resort.

“It’s an eye-opener in that you know you don’t wanna spend any time there as a guest,” Hirschmann said. “The thought is what could we do to alleviate the crowding and also enhance the rehabilitation of the people that are there. Can that be done and what would that cost?”

The expansion plans also include some necessary renovations to the jail that aren’t intended to improve capacity, but quality of life for inmates. 

Dent said she would be interested in approaching the issue as an “à la carte menu,” wherein they can choose some things they want to approve in the plans and some things they do not.

“I would say yes to the HVAC, yes to the kitchen, yes to the visitation area, but no to the ginormous warehouse, and no to new beds,” she said.“We need to figure out what we can do within our community to reduce the prison pipeline.We shouldn’t base a very expensive and unwanted permanent expansion on a temporary bottleneck.”

Both Dent and Hirschmann said what they saw on the tour was upsetting, particularly with recreation rooms repurposed as quarantine spaces and inmates sleeping on pallets with blankets. But they said it was an important reminder that people are struggling with the jail’s conditions everyday. Former and current inmates recently outlined concerns about some of those conditions to The Citizen

“This just reinforces my impression that yes it’s crowded, but don’t let that sway us towards an unneeded expansion. We need to address it further upstream in the community,” Dent said.

Romero, who also participated in the tour Saturday, could not be reached for comment. The other council members, Mayor Deanna Reed and council member Chris B. Jones are scheduled to tour the jail next week. The next meeting of the Middle River Regional Jail Authority Board is April 6.

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