Building a Jail That No One Really Wants?

Dec 16, 2014

Unpopular plans to build a new jail for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County moved ahead last week.

While acknowledging – and agreeing with – those plans’ unpopularity, city and county officials say it’s prudent to start a several-year approvals process for a new jail as a backup plan in case alternative means of reducing the local jail population don’t pan out.  WMRA's Andrew Jenner has the story.

[Sound Scenes: Singing – public comment on jail – applause]

Last week, the Harrisonburg City Council and Rockingham County Board of Supervisors voted to submit plans to the state for building a $63 million new jail. It’s a potential solution to the problem of extreme overcrowding at the current jail in downtown Harrisonburg and a proposition, as you could hear on the tape, that’s stirred plenty of emotion.

RUTH STOLZFUS JOST: This is such a committed, involved, active, community. For a hundred or two [hundred] people to show up at these hearings is really indicative of that.

Ruth Stolzfus Jost lives in Rockingham County and has been active among those calling for new programs and approaches in the local criminal justice system, which has been sending far more people to jail in recent years than the jail was built to hold.

JOST: And the amazing thing is, is that while this is considered controversial, in fact, people on all sides of this issue have enormous consensus about what we need to do.

That is to say, nearly everyone agrees that current trends can’t continue. Here’s Harrisonburg Mayor Ted Byrd:

TED BYRD: Last thing as an elected official you want to spend money on is constructing a new, bigger and better jail.

After one of the meetings last week, State Senator Mark Obenshain, who represents Harrisonburg and part of the county, also spoke in favor of new criminal justice mindsets.

MARK OBENSHAIN: Texas recently, which is certainly not going to be accused of being soft on crime, adopted a cutting-edge, innovative statewide effort to divert offenders, and it’s been very successful. I think here in Virginia we need to continue to look for those opportunities and I look forward to working with residents of the city and the county to fashion a solution that meets our needs.

The city and county will submit architectural plans to the state for a bigger jail, over the objections of many who crowded into the meetings to support investment in alternatives rather than more cells. Elected officials in both localities, though, including Mayor Byrd, say that submitting these plans merely puts them in line for state funding to cover half a new jail’s construction cost if they decide to pursue it.

BYRD: It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s an and/or. Let’s look at all the opportunities and see what is the best possible solution we have for our area. It continues to keep many options open for both the city and county as we’re looking at the criminal justice system here.

In late spring, the city and county will reach another decision point, when they’d need to pass resolutions supporting new jail construction as plans move through the lengthy state approvals process. In the meantime, a new committee, including Jost and Byrd, has been appointed to investigate the sorts of alternative programs that many believe would be more effective, affordable and healing for the community.

JOST: Very shortly, we will be committing ourselves in a further, very significant way in this process. So it’s a race. What can we do between now and May that will actually show us and show the whole community that we can make these changes that change our numbers?

Some of Jost’s highest priorities include starting a day-reporting program for probation violators, loosening bail conditions and using conferencing and other restorative processes that hold offenders accountable to meeting victims’ needs.

JOST: All of us have a representative on the city council or on the county board of supervisors, and they understand that we need to move forward with implementing some changes. They are not just looking at whether we can build a big new jail. And so what we can do now is contact that representative, and say “I support you with moving forward with concrete alternatives that we can do to bring our jail numbers down.” If you have a way that you can help, tell them that you’d like to help.

Otherwise, there’s always that $63 million jail to build.