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Officials opposed to pricey Charlottesville jail renovations pushed out ahead of final vote

Charlottesville and Albemarle County are barreling toward a $49 million renovation of their local jailhouse, bypassing cheaper alternatives and raising questions about the region’s approach to criminal justice reform.

A vote scheduled for Thursday afternoon appears predetermined, as only six of the 11 members on the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail Authority Board are needed to advance the plan.

They are on track to do so despite critics arguing the public has had little meaningful involvement and both current and former board members protesting that the project has been rushed, with little consideration of the less expensive options that have received far less planning than the original $49 million proposal.

“It’s just not correct to say that the board had these options and really could dig into them. And it’s not correct to say the community has had time to engage and discuss the different options,” Lisa Draine, who serves as a citizen representative on the board, told The Daily Progress. “This board has not had a chance to discuss amongst its members how to approach this.”

Draine said she has repeatedly asked the board’s chairwoman, Albemarle County Supervisor Diantha McKeel, to get together to discuss how the facility should be renovated.

That hasn’t happened.

“McKeel has said numerous times, ‘Oh, we’ll have these discussions. There will be time for that.’ There has never been time in the 2.5 years I’ve been on the board,” Draine said.

Since Draine joined the board in October 2021, the body has not had a work session to debate whether the project is a good use of taxpayer money. It will have to make up for lost time during a work session scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday, hours before the board is set to vote on the $49 million project.

That big price tag is accompanied by big philosophical differences about how to best allocate resources in Charlottesville’s criminal justice system. While supporters of the multimillion-dollar renovation argue the current state of the 1975-vintage jail is inhumane, opponents believe that conditions could be improved more cost efficiently and that the savings could be spent on community programs that reduce crime, keeping people from entering the criminal justice system at all.

“I can’t speak to the specifics of what’s going on in Albemarle County, but what we feel is it’s better to make these investments in strengthening community care and invest in things like housing and health care,” Wanda Beltram of the Prison Policy Initiative, a national organization, told The Daily Progress. “Data shows if you expand affordable housing and give people health care, you’re going to see reduced arrests. Those are things people need in order to stay off the streets.”

“I’m glad to hear this is a conversation people are having in the county because so often these projects get greenlit and past the point of no return with no one thinking that this money could go elsewhere,” Beltram continued.

Skeptics of the renovation would like to see more conversations before making any financial commitments. But with a vote just hours away, it may be too late.

An important note: Most of the men and women sitting on the jail authority’s board were not members when the renovation was first proposed in 2020.

Back then, there were several dissenting voices, including Kristin Clarens, Cyndra Van Clief and WINA radio host Jay James. Each of them had concerns about the investment. Now, each of them is off the board.

“This is moving fast,” James told The Daily Progress of the project. “There seems to be a real determination for it to happen, and those that have raised questions about it are no longer there.”

Pushed out

In 2022, the jail board voted in favor of a resolution to notify the commonwealth of its intention to seek a 25% reimbursement for a jail renovation. It estimated the project would cost $49 million.

Attorney Cyndra Van Clief, who had been a citizen representative for nine years, was the only member on the board to vote against it.

She was removed soon after.

Without question, that dissenting vote led to her ouster, according to James, who has spent years volunteering for the Bridge Ministry, a faith-based organization which provides disadvantaged men with education and opportunities to keep them from going to jail.

“She voted; she was removed,” he said.

The Daily Progress tried but could not reach Van Clief for comment. But shortly after her removal, she did speak with reporter Courteney Stuart, then with C-Ville Weekly.

“I was doing my job in wanting to remind the board that we need to take the time to be mindful and deliberate,” Van Clief told Stuart. “We were moving too fast for 50-some million dollars which would set the future of our jail for the next 50 years, two generations.”

She received a letter from the Albemarle Board of Supervisors after being removed, which accused her of “failure to act in the County’s best interest as determined by the Board of Supervisors.”

While Van Clief is gone, concerns about the speed of the project remain, as do concerns that there has not been enough public input.

“I was very disappointed to see her removed from the board,” said James, adding that both Van Clief and Clarens were charged with assessing what the community would want to see in a jail renovation.

“She and Kristen were both involved in community engagement, and they’re both gone, and you’re asking questions about community engagement,” he said.

The Daily Progress also could not reach Clarens for comment.

McKeel told The Daily Progress that Thursday’s work session “will provide the Authority members assurance that they completely understand the options.”

McKeel then stopped responding.

While the jail’s superintendent, Martin Kumer, says his staff has gone above and beyond soliciting public input, many of the community members who participated in the town halls he put on say they don’t believe their feedback was valued. Some have said their words were twisted to justify a $49 million renovation they do not support. Others have called recent community engagement forums “performative,” arguing the jail board has already made up its mind to endorse the most expensive option.

“The outcome is really foretold. But I’m just a citizen representative and trying to represent the views of people who often are not at the table of these discussions,” said Draine. “It hasn’t been a transparent and community-engaged process.”

Unlike Van Clief, both James and Draine voted in favor of the March 2022 resolution. But they did so with the understanding that the $49 million option was merely a “placeholder” to ensure any renovation would receive a 25% reimbursement from the commonwealth.

“All along McKeel and Kumer have said, ‘Nothing is set in stone. There’s time. We have to get something in, and there’s time to make changes, time to discuss the design, time to discuss the scope of the project. We’ll certainly have more community engagement,’” Draine recalled. “But as we’ve seen there is no time to do that.”

Virginia provides a 25% reimbursement to localities that expand or renovate their jails. It can be a long process: a state board must sign off on the project and the General Assembly and governor must agree to put it in the state’s annual budget. Tony Bell of Moseley Architects, the Richmond firm enlisted to carry out the renovation, recently told Charlottesville City Council the procedure can take more than 18 months.

But while both Bell and Kumer have openly raised doubts that a more limited renovation would receive reimbursement, there appears to be little recent evidence supporting their skepticism.

Virginia records show that in 2022 and 2023 five projects were approved by the state board to receive funding. That includes a 25% reimbursement totaling $32,401 for the Franklin County Jail’s plan to “upgrade the security control system and replace existing doors and windows.”

The five projects were the only ones presented to the commonwealth during that time frame, according to Mary-Huffard Kegley, policy analyst for the state board. One of them was the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail renovation, approved for nearly a $12 million reimbursement.

While Draine joined the board in 2021, James started his role in 2019 and was present for what he called the “genesis of renovation discussions.”

Those discussions, he said, started with concerns about the condition of the jail, which has received few upgrades since it was first constructed in 1975 on Peregory Lane just south of the city of Charlottesville. McKeel and Kumer wanted changes. While at first that appeared to mean updating piping, paint and the HVAC system, James said the conversation soon escalated; in addition to those repairs, there was a push for a more intensive capital project that would alter the physical structure of the building.

“It quickly evolved into, ‘It’s time to demolish and do another wing,’” James said.

James said he believes Kumer and McKeel wanted to overhaul the jail, not just replace piping and HVAC systems. Such replacements remain on the table for a smaller price tag of $25 million, but there’s little indication that the board will opt for that instead of the $49 million renovation which would include demolishing a wing of the jail and building a two-story facility in its place.

The cheaper options are relatively new. James said he never once saw them during his tenure.

When James cast his vote in March 2022, he did so with the hope that there would be further exploration of what a renovation might look like. He was never comfortable with the $49 million cost, he said, because it didn’t seem to align with the community’s values.

“I always felt like we needed to continue to talk about this,” he said. “I was not of the opinion we needed to do something to that level of capital investment.”

James served on the board until his term expired in the fall of 2023. He was vice chair at the time and reapplied so he could continue his work. But in a closed meeting, the Albemarle Board of Supervisors chose not to reappoint him.

“They felt like they needed someone more familiar with the process of renovation, which demonstrates there is real determination to make sure this moves forward,” he said.

Choosing not to reappoint him was the board’s prerogative, said James, but it does mark a pattern: Members who express skepticism about the renovation are pushed out. According to Draine, the only people who are still on the board since conversations about the jail’s condition began in 2019 are McKeel and Charlottesville Sheriff James Brown.

James said the diversity of opinion offered by Van Clief and others benefited the board and led to better governance.

“We really just felt like we needed to be fiscally responsible with this,” said James.

At the very least, he said the $49 million investment was worthy of thoughtful discussion. He wondered what the goal of the project was.

“It just seems like there was a determination and a belief by board leadership and the superintendent that this is what really needs to happen, and I think as a community we have an opportunity to really ask the questions and examine what really does need to happen,” James said. “But what I experienced was that there was a lot of momentum and those that raised questions, at times they’d be removed.”

An ethical dilemma

Much of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail is old and unforgiving.

There is little natural light, and those who have been incarcerated there speak of meager food, dirty living conditions, mold in the showers, rats and roaches.

Charlottesville city councilor Brian Pinkston, who serves on the jail board and plans to vote for the $49 million renovation, called the state of the jail “unconscionable.”

Kumer said he truly believes that tearing down the east wing of the jail will change that.

“My job is to make sure that place is safe and humane and meets the needs of the city, the staff and the men and women who live there,” he recently said at a community forum.

A survey of 24 inmates shows a wide range of requests, such as an outdoor recreation area, more natural light, reliable plumbing, improved air quality, more space and “more respect toward inmates.” They want new uniforms, new bedding and lots of programming. That includes educational opportunities and job training that would help them after they are released.

Inmates also noted a desire for mental health programs and a mental health unit separate from medical services.

The $49 million option would include a new mental health wing with more natural light. It would be adjacent to the medical unit and would include seven cells.

A 2022 mental health study of Virginia’s jails found that a quarter of inmates suffer from mental illness, mostly depression or bipolar disorder.

“Jails frequently report that housing mentally ill offenders creates unique challenges, and that the needs of this population would be better served outside of local and regional jails,” reads the report. “However, the jails have made it clear that if they must continue housing this special population, additional funding is needed to assist with these challenges.”

Kumer has made similar remarks: that as long as mentally ill people are sent to his jail, it’s his job to give them the best care possible. He said a new facility built with trauma-informed design will help him do that.

Some community members worry that any new facility will simply offer inmates a new venue to receive medication, which is a cheaper alternative to providing counseling.

Professor Erin Comartin at Wayne State University has visited dozens of jails in Michigan and studied their mental health services. While making sure inmates have proper medication is important, she said facilities should focus on giving inmates regular access to counseling.

“You don’t want to just build a great fancy wing and make sure it’s just about medications. What I’ve been expressing is, how many clinicians are there?” Comartin told The Daily Progress. “What’s the ratio of clinicians to an individual with mental illness in the jail? I would say that’s the ratio you want to be paying attention to.”

The renovation would not include money for more clinicians.

Comartin said jails providing mental health services is an ethical dilemma: It is not the ideal setting for treatment and not how she believes a community should be focusing its tax dollars. She’d prefer to see money put toward community-based care and law enforcement training that keeps mentally ill people from being put into jail in the first place.

“But I know that’s not practical for where we find ourselves right now. And I do think every jail can use better treatment,” she said. “It should be about improving the quality of care in the jail, which includes training for correctional staff, hiring more clinicians who advocate for early release when appropriate and can plan discharges. … I would say that’s worthy of tax dollars.”

A recent briefing prepared by the Prison Policy Institute claims that jail renovations are often defended with a “compassionate” argument: Spending money on mental health services will improve life for people behind bars. It is often a persuasive pitch for taxpayers, says the institute.

“But they should never lose sight of the fact that incarceration itself is inherently harmful to physical and mental health,” reads the briefing. “At best, jail as a place of treatment is ineffectual. At worst, these bad policies drain funding from community-based support systems that can address challenges before a crisis results in incarceration.”

‘Things will never change’

A tour of the jail makes it difficult to say no renovations are needed. Inmates complain of poor air quality and inadequate heating and cooling.

Bryan Page was once incarcerated in the facility. He called parts of it “unlivable.”

Today, Page is a leading member of the BUCK Squad, a violence intervention program that seeks rid the streets of Charlottesville of gun violence. Page said he has no strong opinion on the jail renovation, but doesn’t believe it’s worth a $49 million investment.

“There’s more money that goes into building jails than stopping people from going into jail. It just don’t make no sense,” Page told The Daily Progress. “I’m in the community working, and I see the needs of the community. They’re hopeless. They feel like nobody is going to help them. It’s just survival mode for some of the people in these areas."

It’s those socioeconomic conditions that he said lead people to commit crimes. Any crimes he committed as a young man, he committed because he needed money, he said. If Charlottesville’s impoverished communities had better access to housing, health care and economic opportunity, Page is certain crime would go down.

“Somebody has to invest in these kids and these impoverished communities. At what point do they start changing their philosophy on these things?” Page asked.

Draine would prefer to see the jail receive a $25 million renovation. She will vote against the $49 million option Thursday, unwilling to spend significant funds on incarceration that she said could be better spent on community programs. That $49 million, she said, becomes $73 million over time, because the region will have to pay interest on bonds needed to fund the project. The city of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle and Nelson will split the cost: Albemarle will be responsible for 45.39% with the city covering 39.87% and Nelson covering 14.74%.

Charlottesville’s share amounts to roughly $30 million over 27 years. That’s not much compared to the city’s total budget, but Draine said putting some of that funding toward community programs would be a “gamechanger.”

“If you gave a million dollars to the BUCK Squad or organizations that work in this space of justice and improving the lives of people in the community, you would see a difference,” she said. “We’re not going to get rid of the jail. We’re not going to solve the issue of mass incarceration or the mental health crisis, but this is a small community. A million dollars to organizations working in these spaces would be transformative.”

She knows it’s a tough sell. Anyone who tours the jail often feels inclined to endorse a renovation, if not a complete overhaul.

“It’s hard to say, ‘Oh well, we shouldn’t try to make the living conditions a little better.’ But I’m looking at the larger picture,” she said. “If we keep putting money into the system, things will never change. If we keep doing the same thing we’ve done over and over again, how can we expect a different outcome?”

Both James and Draine believe Kumer and the board members have the best intentions. Pinkston has said that people on the board sincerely believe the $49 million renovation is what’s best for the community.

Draine said she wants to improve the conditions for inmates, but she also wants to elevate the conversation beyond those repairs. Regions across the commonwealth are continuing to spend millions on jails, but what is the return on investment? She and others across Central Virginia are hoping the renovation can spark a broader discussion about fixing a broken criminal justice system.

Charlottesville’s budget is tight this year. A current proposal will raise taxes, and yet there are still worries that the city will not have enough money to properly fund public programs.

At last week’s City Council meeting, councilor Natalie Oschrin pointed out that the city’s school system is requesting $2 million more than is currently budgeted. Meanwhile, if the $49 million renovation is approved, the city will be paying $1.1 million on it annually for nearly three decades.

It’s an opportunity cost: $1.1 million is enough money to hire 14.5 teachers, Oschrin said. More money for the jail means less money for Council’s stated priorities, she emphasized, like funding education and public transit.

“Money that we spend on a jail renovation is easy to see. It’s an immediate payoff. We see the shiny new walls, we see the high ceilings,” she said at the meeting. “But the money spent on school, housing, transit, all of that that we use to try to divert people from needing to end up in jail, that has a much longer payoff.”

Oschrin is not on the jail board and will not have a vote on Thursday. If she did, she said she would select one of the less expensive options, saying that many community members she’s spoken with feel the same.

“That to me would be a great step in making it a more livable space without having to stretch our already stretched budget even further for the next 30 years,” Oschrin said.


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