Soul-Searching in the Valley Over a Crowded Jail

Sep 11, 2014

Like other communities across Virginia, residents of Rockingham County are wrestling with a big problem...

What to do with an incarceration facility – the regional jail – that is overcrowded?  The options range from finding new alternatives for offenders, to expanding the current facility, or even building a new one.  WMRA’s Andrew Jenner has the story.

[Sound of the sally port door opening]

If you get booked into the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail, you’ll come in through the sally port off Liberty Street in downtown Harrisonburg.  A lot more people have been doing this lately. Since last year, the average daily population in the jail has grown by 25 percent to reach 424 inmates. That means:

STEPHEN KING: We have too many inmates for our jail. Our jail is too small.

Stephen King is deputy administrator for Rockingham County, which, along with the City of Harrisonburg, hired a consulting firm this summer to conduct two studies that are a first step towards asking the state to help fund a new or expanded jail. That’s prompted considerable pushback in the community from people who don’t think that building a bigger jail serves anyone’s needs.

JIM ORNDOFF: There are a number of people traditionally in the corrections system who perhaps don’t need to be there.

Jim Orndoff, retired from the public schools system, lives in Bridgewater and has been active among those calling for serious consideration of alternatives to incarceration.

ORNDOFF: We hope that there are ways to deal with the overcrowding issue that don’t involve the construction of a facility.

That sort of idea also finds sympathy among elected leaders like Pablo Cuevas, chairman of the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors:

PABLO CUEVAS: There’s a lot of folks that are incarcerated in jail because they made, pardon the phrase, stupid mistakes, and not necessarily a hard criminal act. And I think that there’s got to be better ways to handle those cases rather than incarcerating folks, you know, locking ‘em up.

Options might include better mental health and substance abuse treatment or work release programs. But right now it’s not clear exactly what’s best, says Harrisonburg City Councilmember Kai Degner.

KAI DEGNER: We don’t really have the sophisticated data sets that we need to be looking at to understand what’s causing the population to be as high as it is right now, and more importantly, what could we do to reduce it.

Sheriff Brian Hutcheson, who runs the jail, discussed its data-collection practices with me by phone, but declined to be recorded for this story.  In any case, gathering detailed data is a major part of the studies that the consultants, Moseley Architects, are working on. The city and county hope to submit these studies to the state by an end-of-the-year deadline. That short timeframe, Degner says, means local leaders and corrections officials have to work together in new ways to find the best solutions to a pressing jail problem.

DEGNER: This crisis that we’re facing right now is actually forcing us around the table together, and I think that’s really productive. And I think that it’s an opportunity that we have because of the time pressures involved.

And when it’s all said and done? Stephen King with the county again:

KING: I would hope we have a jail facility that offers the whole gamut of opportunities for the inmates --that they have their mental health needs met, their substance abuse needs met. That they have the ability to do work release or weekend release. These are people who are in our community when they come into jail. They’re coming back out into our community.

For that reason, Orndoff hopes the focus of the debate will extend well beyond the jail building and whatever programs will be housed there.

ORNDOFF: The mere existence of a jail is a symptom of a community’s failure to deal with the issues in that community. Just building a big box and putting all the bad guys in it is an abdication of the community’s responsibility to deal with the underlying issues.

[Sound of jail door slamming]