The Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Authority Board has begun the next step in renovating the jail, approving a non-binding plan that will not expand the number of inmates housed but will better the quality of life for people detained there.
The renovations of the jail have been a significant topic of discussion ever since the Board began the lengthy process of renovating the jail earlier this year. The process, which is dictated by the state General Assembly, is not anticipated to end until 2025.
ACRJ has been renovated and expanded a few times since 1975, with the most recent expansion increasing the jail to 329 beds. The jail holds inmates from Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle and Nelson. The current renovation drafts are being worked on by the Moseley Architects firm.
In general, the jail renovation discussions have been focused on improving the quality of life of those incarcerated, something Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker emphasized during Thursday’s virtual meeting.
“I wish that we didn’t need a jail and that we were not housing people in it, but if we do have to, and that is where we are at this point, then it needs to be the healthiest space possible,” she said. “I hope that that continues to be the ultimate goal and that at the end of this, that the facility is more like what we see in other countries.”
An early consideration was the potential need to increase the jail’s capacity, which according to Superintendent Martin Kumer, has met or exceeded its capacity in the past even though it is not at capacity now.
Much of the potential capacity expansion will be guided by a needs assessment, which examined growth within the three localities, crime trends, criminal justice reforms and other factors to forecast the future number of inmates. According to information presented by Tony Bell, Moseley Architects’ managing principal, none of the 20 models produced a growing inmate population.
“However, in October there were 375 total detainees, including approximately 60 on home electronic incarceration, in a facility designed for 329,” Bell said. “It’s reasonable to assume that there will be continuing pressure on the correctional resources, including ACRJ bed space, as the region continues to grow.”
Because the jail currently operates near capacity, Bell said the Board needs to continue to plan for an increase in jail programs that get inmates out of ACRJ rather than plans to keep them in. According to Kumer, the jail is in the process of bringing many of these programs back that were paused during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Kumer, the current jail population is 279, which is the lowest it has ever been at ACRJ. In previous meetings, Kumer and members of the Board have indicated the low population is the result of various factors, including diversionary court dockets intended to treat offenders rather than just punish them.
“That is the absolute lowest it’s been in over 20 years, even at the low point during the height of the pandemic,” he said. “So I want to say that we’re still trending down and I never in my lifetime thought I would see that.”
Kumer said the plan to keep the population low is not solely dependent upon home electronic incarceration, which allows people to serve their sentence in their own home while being monitored via an ankle monitor.
“There are other programs out there there are other entities that also help us control our populations and so I don’t want anyone to think that we’re relying on one thing to keep a population low,” he said.
The current renovation plan, which Bell stressed is non-binding at this point, involves a mixture of renovations, demolitions and new constructions. The process is lengthy and difficult due to the need for the jail to be in operation during the renovations, Bell said, comparing the process to a surgery.
Some of the proposed renovations include: demolishing the existing east wing of 1975 facility; constructing a two-story expansion in east wing 27; renovating existing housing units to add windows to some areas, including common areas for inmates; and renovating corridors and adding a new detainee outdoor recreation area.
“One of the biggest issues that we have here with this existing facility is a lot of cross traffic, which involves inmates and staff sharing the same corridors and that can create security concerns,” Bell said. “We’re going to try to cordon some of these staff areas off so that staff and inmates don’t have as much cross traffic and we can secure the facility between inmate areas and staff areas.”
Bell also presented the Board with an estimate of the cost, which takes into account the lengthy process and potential increases in construction cost caused by ongoing supply issues, which have plagued the nation amid the pandemic. According to the cost analysis, Bell said at this point the renovations are looking like they could cost around $48 million, though he said the figure is not the finalized version that will be presented to the Department of Corrections funding request.
“The goal today and before we turn this into the DOC is to make the ask large, not larger, but large,” he said. “The goal after we turn this in is to work as hard as we can with the superintendent and with you to make the cost small — as small as we can but still achieve the goal.”
By the end of the approximately two-hour long meeting, all present Board members voted to approve the continuation of the project, which they will still be able to make changes to in coming months as it awaits partial reimbursement approval from the DOC. A resolution approving funding from localities is not due until May, and the localities could opt to approve the renovations without any DOC reimbursements.
Even though the process is not expected to be finished until 2025, Vice Chairman Jay James urged the jail officials to continue with some improvements, including addressing a mold issue, sooner rather than later. According to Kumer, the jail is currently looking into addressing the mold issue via covering the affected areas with an epoxy paint.
The ACRJ Authority Board will meet next on Jan. 13.