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Macomb County leaders make pitch for new jail

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
The entrance into the Macomb County Jail's D Block.

Two Macomb County leaders made pleas for a new jail—and a millage to support it--from inside the county’s current facility on Monday.

County Executive Mark Hackel and Sheriff Anthony Wickersham talked to reporters from inside a cell block that dates back to 1954. “D Block” is an old-school, dormitory-style cell block surrounded by iron bars that both say illustrates the need for a new facility.

Wickersham says D Block is currently used to house inmates detoxing from drugs or alcohol, with guards coming down the catwalk once an hour to check on them.

“We do not have what’s called the right bed for the right inmate,” Wickersham said. “Where do we put a large amount of people who are going through withdrawal and need withdrawal protocol and trying to keep an eye on them?”

“We have a medical facility that we’re using that’s been repurposed; it’s not a good facility. We have a mental health facility upstairs, in the 1954 section; it’s not a very good facility. We can do better.”

Another issue is that the jail is currently only set up to allow for indirect supervision, meaning guards check in on inmates periodically. Wickersham and Hackel say that approach has largely been replaced in corrections by direct supervision, with more open spaces that allow corrections officers to supervise groups of inmates directly and consistently.

And Wickersham adds, parts of the current jail are simply falling apart.

Their solution: Build out a new, $371 million jail facility. They want to do that through a 0.98 mill millage proposal, which would go toward paying off bonds the county would issue to construct a new jail adjacent to the current one. Macomb County’s Board of Commissioners would need to vote to put that on the ballot— Hackel and Wickersham now say probably the August 2020 ballot. Commissioners are expected to take up the issue later this month.

At a meeting late last month, commissioners seemed in near-unanimous agreement that the current jail is dangerously inadequate. But some balked at the price tag, while others expressed skepticism that the public will vote to approve funds for a new jail. The millage, which also includes money for additional staff, would cost the average taxpayer slightly less than $100 per year.

Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham, left, and County Executive Mark Hackel inside D Block.

Hackel urged commissioners to go ahead with the ballot measure, saying he and Wickersham will take the next year to “educate the public” about the need for a new facility.

Hackel noted the county has commissioned two studies that recommended a new jail, one that dates back to 2005 and a more recent one.

“Two studies now have put us on notice, that you’ve got to do something to fix this,” Hackel said. “Think about the liability situation that comes into play here if you do nothing.”

Hackel alluded to “the liability issue” multiple times, noting that the county has been sued many times over inmate deaths and other alleged mistreatment. At least 20 people have died at the jail since 2012.

A 2017 study also recommended that the jail and larger county justice system take a new approach to handling the jail population, in part by diverting inmates who don’t necessarily need to be there. Wickersham says the proposed new jail would facilitate that by offering a central intake, that would take a more holistic approach to determining who needs to stay in jail based on the crimes they’re accused of and other special needs, including health, mental health or substance abuse issues. It’s also a way to cut down on the jail’s pre-trial population. Currently, 40-50% of the jail’s population hasn’t been convicted of a crime.

Wickersham says while the proposed facility would increase the number of beds slightly, to 1518, the point of that is to avert potential overcrowding and not to fill up beds.

“We just don’t want to build increased capacity, and then like Field of Dreams, ‘build it and they will come,’” Wickersham said. “We want to build a facility that works for the population that’s coming in here.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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