Sheriff Scott Jackson with support from Benton County’s commissioners believes he can make a case for a new jail, if for no other reason than the humanity of it, both in terms of well-being for inmates and safety for the community. But doubts have been expressed, ranging from value for taxes spent to concerns about over-dependence on imprisonment generally. The counterarguments come from an unusually diverse ideological swath of the local electorate. That said, the proposal also has supporters within the community, too.
What the County Argues
If you live in Corvallis and have eyes and ears, chances are you have heard some sort of complaint about the Benton County jail from law enforcement and city officials alike, and for good reason. The Benton County jail was built in 1976 as a 10-year facility, a stopgap for the region until such time that a better jail could be constructed. Coming up on the jail’s 40-year anniversary, Benton County is using the same facility and it’s more than past its prime.
Touring the facility reveals years of rot and decay and a general sense of frustration from both inmates and officers. Stories are told about walls crumbling under water damage, only to be repaired by the criminals with toothpaste and toilet paper, because “they didn’t want to get in trouble.” And it isn’t just general building decay that plagues the jail, but some problems with logistics as well.
With only four holding cells, a bottleneck forms when, for example, Thursday night rolls around and they have a group of six drunks causing a ruckus in town. Four of them, if the cells are empty, can be held in those cells while the other two must be monitored by an on-duty officer until sober. That takes a full-time officer off of their route and sticks them with a drunk for a few hours because there just isn’t room for them. The jail essentially shuts down at this point.
On top of that, the current facility has a total capacity of about 40 beds, but can be considered full usually at about 25 inmates. This is due to issues with placement based on the type of offenders in the jail at any given time. A jail this full is less than ideal. For instance, Benton County reports that the jail is the smallest jail per population in Oregon and regularly closes, unable to accept new inmates arrested by local law enforcement. In 2014, the jail closed for a total of 305 hours. The longest single closure last year lasted approximately 46 hours.
Sheriff Scott Jackson and the four sheriffs preceding him have been calling for a new jail for years. But now, in 2015, Jackson and his team believe they finally have the answer the community has been looking for: a 110-bed facility with a 20-bed work release center stocked with services for training and rehabilitation. This facility would be funded through a bond measure to be placed on the ballot in November.
After an extensive search, Jackson’s team narrowed the location candidates down to two, one in Philomath and another in South Corvallis.
“We had a team of community members get together and they looked at about eight different sites.” Jackson said. “Some of them were ruled away because of cost right away. And then they narrowed it down to three sites, and of those three, we really picked two sites we want to focus on. One is in Philomath—it’s that old mill site, off of the reservoir—and the other is on the airport industrial lane, further south of town here in Corvallis.”
Both sites present their own pros and cons, but the early sentiment is favoring the Philomath site.
“Initially, I was leaning toward the airport site, I liked the fact that it was already government owned,” said Jackson. “As we started digging into it — the feds gave it to Corvallis, so they can never transfer it to another party. They have to charge us fair market value for the land, and they can’t really sell it to us, they can only lease it. We were looking at the site development costs for that site, and the wetland mitigation, the impact for the environment… it’s going to be between a million and a million and a half more dollars than the Philomath site. That doesn’t even count the rent. So, financially, the Philomath site is looking like a much better deal.”
The Corvallis site also faces a number of issues with FAA regulations and general infrastructure problems, so generally, the Philomath site looks like the one to beat.
Jackson was quick to clear up any concerns about the jail being a problem for the Philomath community.
“It’s hard to fathom what it’s going to look like,” he said.“You know, nobody wants their little community destroyed by a big, ugly facility. So we have a lot of work ahead of us to tell Philomath, ‘It’s not gonna be big concertina wire with turrets, and towers… it’s gonna be a building just like any other building.’ It’ll hardly be recognized as a jail.”
Jackson also went on to detail that any inmates released from this new jail would be shuttled off to the Corvallis sheriff’s office to avoid any issues with having a pack of inmates freshly released onto the streets of Philomath, just blocks away from schools and residential districts.
Regardless of location, Jackson promises that this new jail will solve all the logistical issues he and his team face today. There would be an increase in the number of holding cells, from four to nine with multiple being bigger tank-like cells that can hold upwards of 10 to 15 people. It would also enable longer, more appropriate sentences for inmates that usually walk after a 10-day stay, thanks to the current limited facilities. Health and work services that had to be done away with thanks to those shorter stays would also see a revival.
Jackson also made a case for Corvallis and the county as a whole gaining an increase in safety.
“Right now, we’re known as a community that doesn’t really have any teeth in its criminal justice system,” Jackson said. “The inmates we have up here, Linn County deals with as well. The inmates know if they go to Linn County and they steal a car or burglarize somebody’s home, they’re going to get some time. Significant time. But they know, here, they’re not going to get any time. Maybe a few days. No significant time at all. With this new jail, we will have some teeth in the criminal justice system. Not only to give people the sentencing that they deserve, but appropriate sentencing that is going to be aimed at stopping from them doing what they’re doing. Corrective action.”
Jackson also added,“The negative part about a new jail is the bond, the cost… People are going to have to pay for it. I hope they view it as an investment for the future, because literally, even if we got [rented] more and more beds, we could keep doing what we’re doing every year and it’s never gonna get better. Our inmates are not a priority for our contract counties to invest in, because they’re not in any of their communities.”
That said, Jackson posits bigger goals for the inmates. “For us, you know my goal would be so that they never come back to jail again,” he said. “Get them out there working, paying their own taxes, living off on their own instead of off of the government. It’s kind of ironic. Corvallis is very progressive in almost everything except for their jail. This is a community that wants to do the right thing and wants to help until it comes to the jail where it’s more like ‘Put ‘em in tents.’ I kind of understand that, but my message to the community is that we’ve got to invest so that we can get these people out of the wagon so they can help us pull it. It’s more and more people relying on the government for their living and it’s just not sustainable. We’ve got to give them some kind of hand up or tool so that when they get out, they’re a little better off than when they came in, and more able to succeed.”
What About the Numbers?
Beyond the humanitarian case, there is a bit lacking when it comes to the financials. Exact numbers have been getting worked out for the last few months with no exact date of completion stated. The long-term monetary hit of this whole proposal on the citizenry is purely speculative at this point, with some early rough numbers pointing towards $20 million in bonds.
Benton County Public Information Officer Rick Osborn stated that the impact on the average taxpayer should be fairly minimal.
“It’s impossible to say [how it’ll affect the taxpayer] exactly until a number is settled upon,” Osborn said.“There are a variety of factors that impact each taxpayer, as well, primarily taxable value of the home or business, etc. I think it would be fair to say for the average Benton County homeowner it would most likely be [an increase of around] $4 per month. I have that based on some calculations done by our finance office.”
Jackson detailed how the operational cost for the new jail would be significantly cheaper, cutting out the $2 million to $3 million bed rental service we hold with other county jails.
“The money that the office is provided right now from the community for [bed rentals] will more than pay for our operations,” said Jackson.“Our current operational budget will more than pay for the operation of the new jail. We’re kind of bouncing around what’s it going to take [to run the new jail] versus what we have [to run our current jail], and we’re looking at about $800,000 cheaper a year than what we are right now. That’ll be the money that we aren’t spending on renting.”
Another staggering number comes in the general cost per inmate. Jackson explained that the new jail would lower that daily cost from $155 per inmate to about $15 to $16 a day.
There may be some future question why property taxes would need to increase a currently estimated $48 a year against the backdrop of savings that seem considerable.
There has been controversy about the county’s decision to hire a public relations firm to help with this ballot measure. Jackson’s view is that the sheriff’s office had in years past done a “horrible job” at explaining why they believe a new jail deserves support.
“I think we’ve made a mistake in the past where, in 2001, we came to the community and said we need a new jail, this is not effective, we’re basically inhumane in our housing of inmates, and the jail’s falling apart,” Jackson admitted. “They said no. So we said, ‘Well, will you let us rent beds?’ which is kind of a fix, but it didn’t touch our local jail. It just didn’t do anything for us. We asked the community for a new jail, we told them it’s broken, they say no, and then it still works for 15 years. That’s what the community thinks. ‘Oh, it’s working fine.’ We did a horrible job at saying, ‘We’re releasing 300 people a year. Instead of doing their 30 days for breaking into your home.’ And I think that’s on us. Making that impression that we cried wolf. With the new jail, I’m not getting the pushback and stuff that we got last time.” Jackson reported he is happy to see little negative sentiment surrounding the plan.
Community sentiment seems mixed. John Magylonek, owner of the Corvallis Hang Gliding School just outside of the Corvallis site, thought the placement of the jail would help to make the area safer.
Tove Gilbert’Morgan, a mother living in Philomath, had an interesting point of view. She has no fear of any issue arising with the location, citing the current jail’s proximity to the public library and the sentiment that “the police have been doing their job well.”
But, Gilbert’Morgan said, “The limited expansion might help us to look for ways to help those in cells, rather than locking the doors. Finding a place for them to get well would help the community more than moving the location of a jail.”
Some things that are certain: more numbers will be coming, and there will be more public discussion.