New justice center to bring more than one change

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11503141858558.jpg’, ‘Photo by Jason Carson Wilson’, ‘The new Winnebago County Justice Center is taking shape along West State Street with a spring 2007 target date of completion.’);

Meyers: Officers will be back in charge

Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers said the new Winnebago County Justice Center, slated to open in spring 2007, will change how he and his staff operate.

He said replacing the 30-year-old facility would alter access to inmates and how they are managed.

In the existing facility, correctional officers must pass through a series of three secured doors to access housing units, which line certain halls in the jail. Winnebago County Jail Superintendent Andrea Tack said officers can’t get a clear visual by looking through the first windowed door. Making their way through the three doors cuts down on response time to a possible emergency.

But she stressed staff has done a good job of putting prisoners into manageable groups. Tack said, for example, inmates who haven’t been to court are housed in blocks J and P. Sex offenders reside in the upper half of block M, she said. According to Tack, depending on their offenses, some inmates aren’t allowed to intermingle.

Meyers said the new justice center will feature pods or housing units. He said each unit would hold nearly 60 inmates. An officer would supervise the inmates, from a centrally-located desk, in the day room until lock down, he said. This would represent a shift from linear to direct supervision, Meyers said.

“It puts our corrections officers back in charge,” he said.

After lock down, Meyers said, the officer would conduct an inspection of two pods every 30 minutes. He said the new routine would also help save money.

“It takes your man hours and stretches it out,” Meyers said.

He also noted that the facility wouldn’t need to be staffed with as many officers as he thought. Meyers said there’ll be 25 fewer officers than anticipated.

Implementing a new inmate management philosophy helps prepare the prisoners for the outside world, according to Meyers.

“What you want is to change that behavior. Inside (the new justice center), we can start that process,” he said.

Everything’s been designed to happen in the pod. Meyers said 50 monitors will allow friends and family to visit inmates by video. He said the justice center’s interior design reflects a different correctional facility philosophy.

More than 600 inmates are housed in the current jail and satellite facility, Meyers said. Tack said more than 140 of those inmates are at the satellite jail.

Tack said 76 women reside on the first floor, while more than 30 men are on the first floor. She said those inmates are serving lower-level sentences. The second floor also accommodates work-release inmates, Tack said.

He said between two to five federal prisoners—who usually stay overnight while in transit—are among them. Meyers said the county receives $60 per prisoner.

Though the main jail was built to hold 180 inmates, it’s housed at least 650 inmates. Meyers said they’ll soon be together.

A 2004 federal mandate inspired the need for the new justice center. Two federal lawsuits, filed by Rockford attorney John F. Heckinger, Jr., led to that mandate. Those lawsuits—relating to overcrowding—were filed in 2000 and 2002. Tack said the mandate called for ultimately reducing the jail population to 400 inmates by Sept. 1, 2005.

Kevin Lee Carter, a former Winnebago County Jail inmate, alleged in a November 2004 federal lawsuit that two fellow inmates attacked him in April 2003 because he was a convicted sex offender.

According to Heckinger and Carter the beating was allegedly the result of a “lack of areas” to separate sex offenders from the general inmate population.

Another former inmate and the plaintiff in Heckinger’s overcrowding lawsuit, Timothy Chatmon, said a larger jail wouldn’t address his concerns about the facility. Chatmon added a larger jail will just take its toll on a minority community suffering from decades of hypersegregation in Rockford.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli cited them as the reason voters should support the construction of the $160 million, 1,212-bed jail in downtown Rockford.

“It’ll put everybody under one roof,” he said.

Meyers said the new justice center’s size was based on the anticipated need for beds by the year 2020. In addition to providing more room, the new justice center would generate an annual savings of $1.2 million, he said. Meyers said the savings would be realized by shutting down the satellite jail, which would eliminate some transportation, delivery and food service costs. He said 50 to 75 inmates are transported to the Winnebago County Courthouse twice a day for morning and afternoon court calls. A majority of those court calls will be conducted in one of the new jail’s four courtrooms.

Each courtroom will be equipped with a holding cell. Once the new justice center opens, Meyers said, inmates would only be taken to the county courthouse for trials. He said the change would improve public and staff safety.

“(Transporting those inmates) will be eliminated. That’s a step in the right direction,” Meyers said, referring to trips to the courthouse.

Meyers said anytime you move a prisoner, there’s a risk.

Though he noted economic and commercial development isn’t his forte, he said shutting down the satellite jail would help the downtown area. He said there had already been inquiries about the building’s availability.

Jerry Kortman, owner of Kortman Center for Design and Kortman Gallery, said he thought making the satellite jail available for development would help downtown.

“I think it would be great,” Kortman said.

The building could provide much retail space, he said. But Kortman stressed ground-floor space should be reserved for any possible retail development.

Meyers will earn a larger salary, while presiding over a larger facility. Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen broke a 13-13 tie during the May 25 meeting to approve raises for the county treasurer, county clerk and Meyers. Effective in December, his compensation jumps from $97,000 to $107,102, plus annual cost-of-living adjustments from 2007 to 2010.

But County Board member Tim Simms (R-14) said Meyers deserved a bigger raise. Simms said, given Meyers’ range of responsibilities, he should earn as much as new Rockford Police Chief Chet Epperson. He made a motion, which was ultimately defeated, to do just that.

Epperson’s current salary is $114,000 a year.

Meyers said he appreciated Simms’ and the entire board’s efforts. But he said it’s time to deal with what is.

“It’s set for the next four years and that we live with,” he said.

Winnebago County has lived with the current county jail since 1976, Meyers said. He said working to replace the facility inspired a lot of concern. He said citizens were really concerned about how the new justice center would look.

Those concerns, Meyers said, were laid to rest during a public unveiling of the plans at Memorial Hall.

“It got a round of applause from the citizens,” he said.

Comprehensive Community Solution Executive Director Kerry Knodle apparently wasn’t among those clapping.

“If I were given the choice (as to) what to put at that location, it would not have been a giant criminal justice center,” Knodle said.

He said the justice center will not foster growth in the city.

“It needs people living here…not locked up in a cell,” Knodle said.

Locating the facility in a more remote area rather than downtown Rockford would have been his preference, he said.

Knodle said he hoped the soon-to-be-vacated satellite jail is put to some other use than serving as a government or criminal justice building.

“Maybe it could be a bed and breakfast,” he said.

Interim Rockford Park District Executive Director Tim Dimke said he believes the new justice center is the single largest investment in downtown. Dimke said it helps further Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey’s vision to create a governmental, cultural and social center in downtown. Dimke said the new facility would bring new jobs to downtown.

He said the new justice center also aesthetically enhances the area.

Kortman disagreed. He said the new j

ustice center isn’t going to have a positive effect on downtown business, since most visitors won’t be interested in patronizing shops and restaurants.

“It’s not going to restore downtown Rockford to what it used to be,” Kortman said.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, as of June 30, 2005, nearly 2 million inmates were in federal or state prisons and local jails. That’s an increase of 2.6 percent since the middle of 2004. There were 488 inmates per 100,000 U.S. citizens, which is up from 411 at the end of 1995.

The number of women in state or federal custody rose a little more than 3 percent since 2004, reaching 106,174. Men in state or federal custody rose 1.3 percent to a total of more than 1.4 million.

At the end of 2004, there were more than 3,200 African-Americans per 100,000 African-American males in state or federal custody. Only a little more than 1,200 Hispanic men per 100,000 Hispanic males are in state or federal custody. Nearly 500 white males per 100,000 white men are in state or federal custody.

From the June 14-20, 2006, issue

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