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Hunter Taylor - Let's start jail-planning process over & do it right

  • Published in Letters

In August 2012 the Belknap County Commissioners engaged the New York firm of Ricci Greene Associates to develop a plan for a new jail for Belknap County.The Ricci Greene Associates Strategic Planning Report dated January 31, 2013 recommends a 94,451-square-foot facility having 185 beds, with a construction cost estimated by its authors of $392.58 per square foot, totaling $37,079,660, and a total cost including design and other related costs of $450.81 per square foot, which produces a total estimated project cost of $42,579,660.

Despite widespread vocal opposition to the proposed jail plan and its projected cost, the county commissioners are currently requesting that the Belknap County Convention approve $500,000 for extensive architectural design work to be based on the jail plans contained in the Ricci Greene Strategic Planning Report. The commissioners are using the Ricci Greene plans as their starting point for a new county jail even though they are aware that the square footage cost projected in the Ricci Greene report far exceeds the national average cost for county jail construction in the United States. R. S. Means, the bible of construction costs in the United States, currently reports the average cost for county jail construction in the United States to be $223.53 per square foot using union labor and $207.14 per square foot using open shop labor.

In addition to ignoring average construction costs, the commissioners have chosen to stick with the Ricci Greene plan despite an awareness on their part that several county jails that comply with federal standards have been built in other locations for far less than the Ricci Greene estimated cost. While the states are not bound by federal jail standards, compliance with those standards is generally enough to overcome any claim that a particular correctional facility is substandard which could justify a court to mandate replacement of a facility. Compliance with the federal standards, therefore, is generally viewed as a wise course to follow in the construction of a new jail facility.

Of the newly constructed jail facilities which have been brought to the attention of the commissioners, one is in Wilkes County, North Carolina, where construction of a 52,000-square -oot, 224-bed facility is currently well under way. The estimated cost is $10,632,100 or $204.46 per square foot. Another example is in Henderson County, Tennessee. There, a 95,000-square-foot facility, including a jail to house 225 prisoners, two courtrooms, and the sheriff's office, was completed recently at a cost of $16,000,000 or $168.42 per square foot. Apparently both of these facilities required kitchens sufficient to feed the anticipated inmate population. The Belknap County facility, on the other hand, would not need this feature as food would continue to be prepared at the adjacent county nursing home.

Apparently in the minds of the county commissioners, the new jail project has reached the point where bids for construction are to be solicited. For the bidding process to happen, extensive architectural design work must be done. Rather than asking the County Convention to approve funds for a plan based on a facility that could be (or has been) built for a cost in the $12 to $15 million range with a square footage cost in line with the national average, the commissioners stubbornly continue to insist on the Ricci Greene proposal as the basis for the design work for the project. On the cost issue, their explanation is that they "believe the cost can be lowered through the competitive bidding process." Assuming the Ricci Greene people were competent in their cost projections, one can reasonably question the extent of cost reduction that might be accomplished through competitive bidding: could the cost be reduced to the $30 to $35 million range? If so, is that price acceptable?

Comparison of the projected Ricci Greene costs with average costs and examples of other jail construction costs is not the only evidence of the excessiveness of the plan being advanced by the commissioners. Examination of the Ricci Greene proposal itself reveals its gross extravagance. For example, included in the Ricci Greene design is a staff workout/weight room, which is a dedicated area housing multiple exercise machines and free weights to be used by the staff of the Sheriff's Office and the Corrections Department. This would constitute a wonderful employee benefit in prosperous times, but these are not prosperous times. In addition, the Ricci Greene proposal calls for a 3,000-square-foot gym for the inmates and also six areas within the walls of the facility and under its roof designated for "outdoor recreation". These are attached to various dormitories; five are 500-square-feet and one is 1,000-square-feet. These areas comprise 5,500-square-feet within the proposed building to be used for inmate physical activity.

For an inmate population the size of that contemplated by Ricci Greene, the federal standards require a 1,000-square-foot space with an 18-foot ceiling dedicated to inmate exercise within the building itself. The federal standards also require that each inmate be provided at least one hour of exercise opportunity per day, indoors or outdoors. Clearly, the Ricci Greene proposal of 5,500-square-feet under the roof of the proposed jail far exceeds what is required under the federal standards. It is unrealistic to expect Belknap County taxpayers to support such a lavish jail facility at a time when all public institutions, including schools and libraries and parks, are hurting for funds.

In addition to the multiple indoor recreation areas, the Ricci Greene proposal has five rooms designated as multipurpose. These rooms have a total area of almost 1,000-square-feet. The proposed plan also includes two classrooms of 250-square-feet each, a 250-square-foot library, eight interview rooms, a 200-square-foot group counseling room and an 80-square-foot individual counseling room. All this for an anticipated 185 inmates.

The Ricci Greene proposal also includes a 1,200-square-foot "receptor kitchen" to receive the food prepared and plated in the adjacent nursing home located a few feet away from the planned jail.

A final example of the design extravagance of the proposal consists of the various day rooms planned for the dormitory areas. There are eight dormitory areas within the core jail facility designed for sleeping. Under federal standards, each such area should have a "day room" with an area of at least 35-square-feet per inmate housed within the particular section. The jail proper of the Ricci Greene design has 116 beds, with the remainder of sleeping areas being part of a separate housing unit designated as the Community Correction Center.

The eight core jail dormitory areas would require a total of 4,060-square-feet of "day room" space under federal standards. The eight "day rooms" within the Ricci Greene design total 7,780-square-feet, exceeding the federal requirement by 3,720-square-feet, or approximately 90 percnt. In other words, the Ricci Greene design that the commissioners wish to use as a starting point for planning the new jail project contains inmate day room space for the primary part of the jail that is almost double the amount required by federal standards.

A tour of the current jail with its obvious and serious state of disrepair is likely to lead even the most frugal observer to the conclusion that a new jail is needed. Such a tour also underscores how fortunate we in Belknap County are to have Superintendent Daniel Ward and his very able staff running our correctional facility. They are doing a great job in a facility one observer has described as an example of demolition by indifference. For example, despite severely limited classroom space, 85 inmates have earned their GED since 2010. Of these only nine have returned to jail — eight for probation violations and one to pay off a fine. Since 2010, 131 inmates have completed the ADAPT Group program aimed at solutions for substance abuse — only 19 have returned. Other rehabilitative programs have produced similar results. A better facility might well make for even better results. Regardless, if the current substandard facility is not replaced, we are likely to see a lawsuit that would produce a court ordered new jail. These realities should encourage us, the people of Belknap County, regardless of political persuasion, to do the right thing — to build a new county jail. Which brings us to the issue at hand — what is the best course to pursue to the desired end?

It is bad enough that the taxpayers of our county paid over $150,000 to obtain the Ricci Greene report with its many frills — a proposal laced with things we neither need nor can afford. And now the commissioners appear committed to double down on the past mistake. Requesting $500,000 for architectural design work based on the Ricci Greene plan is highly unlikely to lead to construction of a new jail. First, it will be shocking if this request for a half million dollars for design work is approved. Second, it would be even more shocking if any County Convention were to approve the funding for a new county jail in an amount far exceeding the average national cost for county jail construction. And in the same vein, it would be even more shocking if any legislator who voted to approve such an excessive construction cost was ever re-elected. Against a background of commonsense and practical reality, paying $500,000 for design work based on Ricci Greene has to be viewed as throwing good money after bad. Insistence on this approach seems obstinate and foolhardy. The commissioners would serve the people of Belknap Count better to acknowledge the past mistake in a forthright manner and move now in a new direction to give us a new jail that is both appropriate and affordable for our county. As the current facility continues to deteriorate from lack of maintenance, time is becoming even more of the essence. Let's start again and get it right this time.

(Hunter Taylor is a resident of Alton. He was a participant on the Belknap County Jail Planning Committee from October 2013 to January 27, 2014, when he withdrew. In 2010, he retired as partner in the law firm of Taylor and Keyser in Mr. Holly, NJ. He is professor emeritus at the Rutgers University School of Law in Camden, NJ.)