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Report: County has a jail space crisis

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSheriff Nathan Sickler agreed with the grand jury’s finding about the jail being too small and antiquated, adding the inadequate jail affects the entire community.
Special corrections grand jury issues list of recommendations

A Jackson County grand jury has determined the county has a “jail space crisis.”

Members of a special grand jury that inspects the county’s correctional facilities characterized the 315-bed Jackson County Jail built in 1981 as an “outdated” location that “fails to meet the growing county’s needs.”

Jurors stressed that the jail, Juvenile Detention Facility and Community Justice Work Center are all “well-run, given the resources available.”

It provided a list of improvements at each location in a 14-page report, which was made public March 30.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler agreed with the grand jury’s finding about the jail being too small and antiquated. During the years since the county jail was put into use, jails have become places “where people in crisis have to stay,” Sickler said during an interview Thursday.

Those crises include medical, mental and a variety of other personal needs.

Sickler said the inadequate jail affects the entire community. The large number of criminal court defendants not showing up in court often stems from the lack of space because some people who should be lodged in the jail instead end up being released on their own recognizance, for example.

Because the building is too small, not current in design and aging structurally, it will require more maintenance — and cost more to keep up — until it’s no longer usable, he explained.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure in May 2020 that would have created a new jail taxing district. The levy would would have raised about $512 million over 20 years, and part of the money would have been used to build a new jail.

Sickler anticipates a new jail would cost more than the approximately $171 million estimated in 2020. Inflation could raise the price to build a new jail to $200 million to $225 million, he speculated.

One of the grand jury’s recommendations was that the sheriff’s office increase its efforts to educate the public about the problem.

“We suggest stronger media presence, public outreach and overall marketing effort,” the report stated.

Sickler said he agrees with the jury’s recommendation but wants to ensure this need is properly articulated and well-timed. Included in the grand jury report is Sickler’s response that the sheriff’s office now has a public information officer who could help with the effort.

The grand jurors also suggested that either the county administrator or sheriff hold quarterly public meetings to bring together stakeholders, county officials and the public “to discuss and problem-solve the issue of the jail space crisis.”

Sickler said he held numerous public meetings to spell out the need for a new jail before the 2020 election. Those meetings didn’t attract many residents, and the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help matters, he said.

“I do believe a well-crafted public engagement plan would accomplish what the grand jury is intending,” he said.

Once there is a plan — and if it’s approved by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners — it would be appropriate to host public meetings to explain the plan and gather feedback from the public about it.

Grand jurors also suggested additional staffing at the jail. Two deputies will be added, but they need to complete training before starting work, Sickler said.

Among medical care recommendations for the jail is creation of space and staffing for an area that would function “like an infirmary” to provide inpatient care, as well as provide an EKG machine and IV hydration equipment. Both would allow more in-patient care.

The report also suggests the jail increase the hours for medical and dental providers in the jail.

The sheriff’s office explained in the report that the ideas were sound, but also noted such care is provided by a third-party vendor chosen based on the content of their service proposal, which would include scope of care and equipment.

Space for an infirmary isn’t available, said Capt. Joshua Aldrich, head of the Corrections Bureau.

The report said the county is negotiating with its medical vendor, and the effort might result in increased hours of medical and dental service in the jail.

In both the jail and transition center, jurors asked for the return of regular Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Aldrich said that would happen only after the Oregon Health Authority determines it’s safe for such gatherings to occur amid COVID-19.

Online meetings won’t work inside the jail because the 40-year-old structure isn’t designed for it, Aldrich said.

The first grand jury recommendation for the transition center was that it increase the number of transitional housing units available. While the county is considering whether it can afford to add another transitional housing dorm, off-site housing is provided by partner agencies.

The grand jury began its list of recommendations for youth detention by asking that it be ensured youths staying there receive “enough food and not feel hungry.”

The facility is moving away from the National School Lunch standard and new offerings are in the works, according to the report.

The youth center is expected to become a GED testing site soon, and staff told the grand jurors they will try to obtain an EKG machine and IV hydration equipment for use on site because it would help reduce the number of people there requiring detox treatment at the hospital.

The grand jury tours facilities and conducts interviews with people associated with each of the county’s corrections locations annually to assist with its reporting. Some of the people in custody are among those interviewed.

The full grand jury report is available online at jacksoncountyor.org/da/General/Special-Corrections-Grand-Jury-Reports.

Reach reporter Terri Harber at tharber@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4468.