Berrien County Jail renovation project aims to accommodate changing times
By Julie Swidwa For the News
Jan 7, 2018 Updated Jan 17, 2018
ST. JOSEPH — When the Berrien County jail was built in 1952 female inmates were few, mental health issues were less prevalent and security challenges were not as much at the forefront.
A major renovation under way at the jail is centered around expanding the intake area, separating incoming and outgoing inmates, accommodating a growing female population and otherwise making the jail safer for inmates and jail staff.
The project includes security upgrades, a remodeled kitchen, medical isolation cells and padded cells for inmates who might try to harm themselves. Construction will continue throughout the year and possibly into early 2019.
The $8.4 million project will allow flexibility for the future and extend the life of the jail by as much as 20 years, Berrien County Sheriff’s Capt. Brian Wilkey said.
Meanwhile, the jail continues operating while extensive demolition and construction is being done in areas surrounding the secure area.
In the spring, police officers bringing people to jail will notice a vehicle sally port that is doubled in size. A sally port is a secure, controlled entryway to a fortification or prison. It usually includes two sets of doors that can be barred independently.
Doubling the size of the vehicular sally port at the jail means that more police cars will be able to line up inside an enclosed, secure port while unloading incoming jail inmates. Widening the port so two vehicles can fit side by side will also improve flow through the sally port.
The intake area of a jail is where incoming prisoners are held while they are being processed and classified based on gender, type of crime alleged, and other risk factors. Once formally charged and classified, inmates who will be staying in jail are taken to longer-term holding cells.
Jail intake capacity will expand to 75 beds, 51 for males and 24 for females. There will be two padded cells, one for each gender, a medical exam room, screening area and triage area.
“Right now the (demolition/ construction) is going on outside the secure area. Everything in the middle is getting cleared out, and the secure area will expand this way (to the west),” Wilkey said during a tour of the construction area. “The challenge is we still have a jail to operate.”
Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit said the new intake area will have more, larger cells, so “If we have to keep people separate due to their charges, we’ll have more harmonious balance.” He said people are not happy to be in jail and cramped holding areas make a bad situation worse.
The jail laundry room, staff locker room and kitchen storage room are being moved to the west side of the building, where patrol offices, marine division offices and the emergency operations center once were. Those are now at the 911 Operations Center on Empire Avenue.
The inmate property storage area will be nearly quadrupled, and three interview rooms will be added, reducing movement of inmates to unsecured areas for police interviews. Currently, an inmate scheduled to be interviewed by a detective is taken to the sheriff’s office, where he or she waits in a hallway handcuffed to a chair. When the renovation is finished, police will interview inmates in a room inside the secure area of the jail.
“The secure interview rooms will add to the benefit of the project,” Heit said.
Berrien County Administrator Bill Wolf said the jail as originally built was never meant to accommodate the growing number of female inmates.
Wolf said that in theory, the jail intake project started in 2005, when the county acquired property on Empire Avenue and moved its dispatch, road patrol and emergency operations out to that facility. That move not only relieved parking congestion at the courthouse next door, but also freed up space in the jail building.
“So much of that area that has been gutted has been underutilized since we moved those other operations out,” Wolf said. “So it’s really a continuation of a 12-year project getting to this point.”
Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey said he’s been working on a plan to improve the jail’s receiving area since 2004. In 2009, the county hired a consultant to look at the facility, along with an architecture firm, and the renovation was recommended.
“I’m happy the project finally became a reality and we’re moving forward,” Bailey said. “We have needed additional space to house people, and interview rooms right off the receiving area. This is money well-spent.”
Wolf said that in selling the project to the Berrien County Board of Commissioners, he pointed out that the $8.4 million renovation would allow the county to get another 20 years out of the jail. He said the neighboring courthouse building has been well-maintained and that building is good for another 20 years.
“We’re trying to get them on the same life-cycle. When both buildings get to that 20-year mark, whatever board is sitting here at that time can decide whether to put more money into them or move them to a new site,” Wolf said.
He said estimates for a new jail range from $45 million to $55 million, while a new jail and courthouse “campus” would cost closer to $100 million.
“That’s a rough estimate, but probably a pretty safe one, for moving the ‘campus’ operation,” Wolf said. “The jail and courthouse really need to go together because otherwise we’re hauling inmates from one to another, and that’s expensive.”
Building a new jail/ courthouse campus on land the county owns in Benton Township would require relocating the county seat, which currently is St. Joseph.