For decades, the Alger County, Mich. jail has stayed the same, but its residents have changed.
“Most of them have some kind of drugs onboard, or alcohol,” Jail Sergeant Steve Webber said of the inmates. “Between that and prescription medication, it’s a different kind of inmate now. They’re going through detox, they’re going through withdrawals. Back in 1968, when this jail was built, nobody had an inmate like that.”
“Ten years ago, 20 years ago, to have a woman in jail was uncommon. Today they outnumber the males in our population.”
Thanks to a $1.2 million expansion, the small county on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has newfound flexibility to manage its jail population, without shaking up its tight budget.
“I told staff I’m all for building a new jail but what we really need is to figure out how to do that on a budget,” said County Board Chair Jerry Doucette. “We have a small county, a lot of our folks are living on limited income and we have to be very careful.”
It was simple enough — double its capacity while essentially filling those new beds with inmates from other places. A Department of Agriculture loan supplied $1.1 million, which will be paid back via a 20-year contract to house inmates from nearby Luce County, which only has a lockup for holding people for a few days. Housing other counties’ inmates will close the gap. The state corrections department will also house inmates in Alger County, rather than making a longer and costlier trip to its correctional facility in Chippewa County.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” Doucette said. “We’re able to enhance the security and functionality of the jail and not go to the taxpayers. The state saves money and time.”
That tight budgeting explained why the jail wasn’t updated in nearly 50 years.
“We looked around for grants, but there wasn’t much to support a bricks-and-mortar expansion,” Webber said.
“We’re a pretty heavy public land county, so we don’t have a lot of money lying around,” Doucette said.
The expansion will include two eight-person pods and three two-person cells.
“That gives us plenty of options for isolating high-risk inmates or separating people who are in for the same crime and can’t be housed together,” Webber said.
Outside of housing inmates, the jail had a few additional upgrades. The jail now finally has a sally port — a fortified entrance to the jail that limits deputies and inmates’ exposure when they are transferred to the jail.
“That transition area is where a lot of things can go bad,” Webber said. “Now, with that transfer being done in a secure area, it’s much less of a concern.”
Along the same lines, refitting doors inside the jail means now no two doors can be open at the same time, which makes the building more secure.
The central control room has also been updated, improving functionality and the work environment for jail deputies.
“Part of our control room used to be in a closet,” Webber said. “Everyone who works there is a lot happier now. The quality of life, both from functionality of our equipment and something as simple as the lighting, is making a big difference for our people.”
Doucette said the improvements to the control room could decrease the staffing needs for the jail, now that operations are consolidated to fewer workstations and new options for managing the populations will reduce the workload for deputies.
“Life is really good and we’re really happy with it,” Doucette said. “We’re running an improved jail with no added expense to our county, and we got it done on time.”