Middle River Regional Jail board delays action on expansion as officials ‘need to verify’ figures

Middle River Regional Jail Superintendent Jeffery Newton (blue mask) and Rockingham County Administrator Stephen King (black mask) listen to discussion during Tuesday’s MRRJ Authority Board meeting.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Plans to expand the Middle River Regional Jail have stalled – for now. 

Rockingham County Administrator Stephen King, who serves as chairman of the jail’s authority board, announced at the board’s meeting Tuesday that the board would not take any action on an expansion proposal that day. 

“That item’s going to stay on the agenda for the next meeting, and action may or may not be taken at that point,” King said at the meeting, which was held up the road from the jail at the Augusta County Government Center. “It’s complex when you have five different jurisdictions each with elected bodies, all trying to come to some level of agreement.”

The jail’s authority board has floated proposals to renovate existing spaces, upgrade the HVAC system and add more beds.

The board’s next meeting is on June 1. It’s made up of representatives from each of the five jurisdictions that own the jail: Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, and Rockingham and Augusta counties. 

According to the 2015 service agreement between the jurisdictions, at least four of the five governing bodies would need to vote in favor of the expansion for the project to move forward; but the Harrisonburg and Waynesboro city councils have indicated they don’t support the expansion, at least for this year. 

Three Harrisonburg council members toured the regional jail Saturday. And while they acknowledged the need for investing in some improvements, the council members say they prefer exploring more alternatives to incarceration to expanding the jail to add more beds.

A presentation Moseley Architects gave to the authority board in December showed Feb. 2 as the date the board was slated to choose an expansion option, followed by approving an architect-engineer contract on April 6. In a phone interview after the meeting, King told The Citizen that he doesn’t know what the board’s plan is going forward.

“If we can’t provide more beds there, we’ll have to rent beds from other facilities, I guess is the bottom line, or stress the existing Middle River Jail facility with more inmates,” he said.

Some local residents who spoke during public comment expressed frustration with the variety of numbers that officials have given as the jail’s capacity, from a “rated capacity” of 396 inmates to an “operational capacity” of 902 inmates that was previously posted on the jail’s website. The Virginia Department of Corrections uses “rated capacity” as a way to, among other purposes, calculate reimbursement for certain staff costs at jails. In December, the Daily News-Record reported King said the jail had a capacity of 925. 

The jail’s website was edited earlier this year to say the facility “has a rated capacity for 396 inmates anticipating that there may be as many as 600 inmates per day at times.” 

“Why the difference? We can’t have it both ways. Why was it OK in January of 2020? Why is it ‘overcrowded’ now, when we’re dealing with jail expansion?” said Tracy Stover, an advocate whose son was recently moved from Middle River to the Rockingham Harrisonburg Regional Jail. 

“These numbers that are being presented … they’re pretty deceiving and they’re inconsistent, and that has to change,” said Anna Cubbage, who spoke with The Citizen last week about her own experiences at the jail.

When asked about the discrepancy between capacity numbers, King told The Citizen “that’s something that we need to look at and resolve.”

“There seems to be this perception that there’s this hidden motive. There’s no hidden motivation,” King said. “We’re responsible for these individuals, regardless of how they got to us, to house them properly.”

Jail Superintendent Jeffery Newton said in the meeting that, as of Tuesday, Middle River Regional Jail housed 745 inmates, with an additional 54 on home electronic incarceration. Of those 745 people in the jail, 306 are awaiting transfer to a Virginia Department of Corrections facility. Another 35 inmates, who were sentenced to Middle River, are currently being housed at the Pamunkey Regional Jail in Hanover, Newton said.

The jail authority board first started discussions with Moseley Architects to conduct a needs assessment and planning study in 2018, when the average daily population there was 925, and occasionally topped 1,000 that fall. 

When asked if the current population of 745 inmates still meant the expansion plans drafted by Moseley Architects are needed, King said “that’s something we need to verify with the numbers.”

In response to public comments calling for more alternatives to incarceration for those with mental health and substance abuse issues, King told The Citizen about existing programs in Harrisonburg and Rockingham, such as the mobile crisis team and drug court.

“We feel like we’re doing a lot more, maybe, than people recognize,” he said, “so that’s a little bit frustrating.”

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