Allamakee County Public Safety Committee presents proposed jail/public safety center plans to city officials, township trustees

by Bob Beach

The Allamakee County Public Safety Committee invited city officials and township trustees to a public meeting Thursday evening, October 2 regarding the proposed construction of a new jail and public safety center and the $4.9 million bond referendum to fund the project. Allamakee County Sheriff Clark Mellick opened the meeting by saying that his job is to operate the County's jail, not to tell people how to vote.
That said, Mellick went on to give a detailed presentation covering the history of the proposed project, the deficiencies of the current jail facility, the options reviewed by the Public Safety Committee and associated costs. He concluded his presentation with a review of the layout of the proposed facility.

Sheriff Mellick said that after taking office, he conducted a review of the County's jail facility, knowing that annual jail inspections had noted several deficiencies. He said that at that time, it had not been his intention to pursue the construction of a new jail during his first term as Sheriff. He said that after the closure of Makee Manor, the Board of Supervisors, also aware of the deficiencies of the current jail facility, asked him to investigate the possibility of converting Makee Manor into a jail facility. That request, Mellick said, led to the hiring of a consultant to review the current and future needs of the Allamakee County Jail.
The current jail was constructed along with the County Courthouse in 1939. At that time, the jail had 11 beds (nine for males, one for females and one for juveniles). A later change in state regulations resulted in the removal of one of the male beds, but other renovations were made to add two female beds and three beds for work release prisoners, bringing the current jail's capacity to eight males, three females and three work release prisoners. Juveniles can't be held in the current jail.

Sheriff Mellick said that the most serious deficiency of the current jail is the inability to separate prisoners based on their "classifications." He explained that a new federal law, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, requires jail facilities to have the ability to separate prisoners into seven different classifications, while prisoners in the current facility can only be separated into two classifications (male or female). The law requires that incoming inmates be interviewed to determine if they are likely to victimize others or if they themselves are likely to be victimized.
Mellick related a story about a recent incident in the Allamakee County Jail. He said that two 18-year-old boys had recently been arrested for "joy riding" and were held overnight in the jail. In the morning, while one of the boys was taking a shower, another inmate, a convicted felon being held awaiting a probation revocation hearing, told the boy that he would be joining him in the shower. Mellick said that if that had not been prevented from happening and that inmate had laid hands on that boy, the jail would have been immediately closed by the State Jail Inspector and the County would be defending a lawsuit. He noted that Scott County recently paid out $5 million in a similar case.
The current jail has other less serious deficiencies, Mellick said, such as inadequate light, inadequate water pressure and the lack of an exercise area mandated by state regulations. Mellick said that those regulations require a 500-square-foot exercise area with an 18-foot ceiling. He noted, however, that those regulations don't mandate that the area include any equipment of any kind. He said that the proposed facility would include an empty room built to meet the state requirements where prisoners could walk around in circles or back and forth if they wish.

The Public Safety Committee, composed of roughly 25 individuals from all areas of the county, reviewed several options to address the ongoing deficiencies of the current jail, Mellick said. The renovation of the Makee Manor building was found to be more expensive than constructing a new facility. The Committee determined that no further renovations could be made at the current jail and that the acquisition of property to build an addition to the courthouse would add at least $1 million to the project cost and remove property from the tax rolls.
Mellick said that other properties in town were looked at, but removing the real estate from the tax rolls was a concern. He also said that since a new jail could not be connected to the courthouse, there would be some prisoner transportation issues, but those issues would be the same whether the jail were three blocks from the courthouse or three miles outside of town.
The Committee concluded that the most cost-effective option would be to build a new facility at the Makee Manor site, Mellick said. The County already owns the land and the Makee Manor building would need to come down anyway, he explained.
Mellick added that the Committee had found that doing nothing and waiting for the current jail to close would ultimately be more expensive than building a new facility now. Prisoners would need to be transported and housed somewhere outside of Allamakee County once the jail was closed. Mellick said that he estimates that the County would need to hire five full-time transportation officers in order to have one transport officer on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that city police forces would be responsible for transporting those they arrest to the nearest available jail themselves. Additionally, Mellick said that the cost of housing prisoners elsewhere is currently $50 to $100 per day. Aside from the costs, Mellick said transporting prisoners would be a "logistical nightmare."
Mellick shared a graph comparing the costs of building a new facility at Makee Manor with the costs of housing prisoners outside of the county. The graph (accompanying this article on front page) shows that in the first year, the cost of housing prisoners outside of the county is slightly more than the annual payment would be on a $4.9 million bond ($354,000). Over time, the cost of housing prisoners increases with inflation and the growing number of prisoners, while the payment on the bond remains the same; after 20 years, there will no more payments due on the bond while the costs of housing prisoners outside of the county continue to rise.

Sheriff Mellick said that safety is the focus of the design of the new facility, adding that prisoner comfort is not a consideration; the jail would have concrete floors, block walls and steel bunks. "There's nothing fancy about it," Mellick said. "It will be functional, efficient and built to last at least 75 years."
Mellick shared preliminary blueprints of the proposed facility, pointing out safety features such as a sally port for bringing in prisoners and a booking area separated from the public areas of the facility. He noted that the proposed facility includes adequate office space for the Sheriff's Department, Emergency Management and E-911 offices as well.
Mellick pointed out several other features of the proposed facility, notably absent from the current facility, such as interview rooms, evidence storage, a locker room for deputies, an armory for weapon storage and a visitation area. He said that the jail itself would include 27 beds, expandable to 44 beds very inexpensively in the future, and could accommodate seven different classifications of prisoners as required by state and federal law.
Mellick concluded his presentation by saying that if the $4.9 million dollar does not get the approval of 60% of the county's voters in the upcoming November 4 general election, the Public Safety Committee would review the issue again with an eye towards holding another special election in the spring of 2015.