In 1976, the State of Oregon planned a movement towards regional jail systems, which would service the needs of multiple counties in one jail facility. Benton County, however, still needed a stop-gap jail, so it built a small facility, intended to last no more than 10 years. In 2013, almost 40 years later, we are still using the same facility. The plans for a regional jail fell through, and Benton County’s stop-gap jail has become an unfortunately permanent solution for what was supposed to be a temporary problem.
While there are some obvious issues with the jail, such as the incredibly small capacity – with double bunking our jail can hold a maximum of 40 inmates, and there is no room for further expansion — there are some bigger problems as well.
“It is physically falling apart,” said jail Captain Diana Rabago. “The mortar in certain areas is actually decaying and can be picked out. Due to leakage of the roof, and other water-related issues, the bricks have softened and aged over time and could potentially become a big safety and security issue.” She also discussed the substantial issues with the facility’s plumbing, which is a more durable stainless steel system for safety in the jail. “These devices are outdated and we cannot get spare parts for them anymore.” The facility is also in no way equipped for the advanced technology that increases safety for both staff and inmates. In 1976, most documentation was in paper form, but “now the booking process consists of electronic imaging of fingerprints, software to keep track of funds, medical issues, prior arrests, we have more cameras and intercoms. Digital video recorders record every move on camera. There is conduit in virtually every room and hallway in the facility.” Water damage and structural issues mean issues with technology as well, as equipment will need to be replaced much sooner than it otherwise would.
One of the larger issues with the jail, as if the fact that it was falling apart weren’t enough, is that there are only two holding cells and two waiting cells. These cells provide space for new inmates awaiting intake, and also for inmates needing special space due to suicide risk, disciplinary issues, and cells for people under the influence of intoxicants. These cells are full almost continuously, meaning that deputies have to be creative with how they keep inmates in custody.
In a recent assessment by the DLR Group, the Benton County Jail was determined to be substantially lacking in filling the needs of the county. In order to have a satisfactory jail, Benton County would need a facility that could house at least 108 inmates. “That does not take into account any future needs, so in reality we would need to build a jail that could house more than the 108,” said Rabago.
While it is true that making improvements or building a new jail will have a cost, we are already expending an incredible amount of money on corrections in Benton County, and we could be spending that money much better. “We have been ‘renting’ beds at the other jails since 2001, so for over 12 years now. Doing the math, this means that over $15 million has gone out of our county to support jobs and expansions in other jails,“ Rabago said. “We currently spend about $1.3 million a year on contracts with Yamhill, Lincoln, and Linn county jails to house up to 40 additional inmates. So at any given time Benton County actually has up to a total of 80 inmates in custody. They just aren’t all at the local jail.” However, according to Rabago that still doesn’t handle all of our needs as a county. She continued, “We still run into situations where the jail has to ‘force release’ inmates due to overcrowding. These are individuals who should remain in custody either due to a criminal charge or to serve out the remainder of a sentence, but we just don’t have the room.” The DLR Group Assessment estimated a “whole project cost” (which includes land aquistion, sustainability consultants, permits, etc) of roughly 19 million dollars would be needed. This would mean that in about 15 years this facility could pay for itself in savings from what we are spending outsourcing our corrections to other counties.
Benton County’s Public Information Officer, Rick Osborn, explained that efforts are still just beginning to find a reasonable solution to this problem, but that there are people looking into the feasibility of a variety of options, including investigating possible sites of a new facility. However, we are still a long way off from finding a comprehensive solution. “In terms of when we go out for a levy or a bond, I’m not sure if we have anything worked out that way. It’s still in the early stages right now,” said Osborn. With an issue as dire as this, hopefully citizens of Benton County will take a stand supporting this important issue. As the Benton County Sheriff’s Office moves forward on this issue, the community looks for a clear solution to enable us to provide both our inmates and our corrections employees with a safe and healthy work environment.
by Candy Smith