County Council to hear final report on new jail this week

County Manager Shawn Henesee expects a ‘difficult sale’ when people see the project’s final price tag

CLARK COUNTY — After well over a year, the Clark County Correction Facility Advisory Committee, otherwise known as CFAC, will officially hand off its final report to members of the County Council.

The 24-member volunteer committee, comprised of law enforcement, city, county, and business leaders, as well as other interested groups, has spent 18 months debating what the county’s aging jail should be replaced with.

A corrections deputy looks down at a common area inside the Clark County Jail. Photo courtesy Clark County Sheriff’s Office
A corrections deputy looks down at a common area inside the Clark County Jail. Photo courtesy Clark County Sheriff’s Office

CFAC was initially tasked with providing a final recommendation in November of last year, but was extended twice after struggling to come to a consensus.

In its 23-page final report to the council, the group outlines some of the challenges facing the existing facility, such as a rising inmate population and increasing length of stay, complex medical and behavioral health needs the current jail is ill-equipped to handle, cramped intake space, and an aging building showing signs of deterioration.

The current jail has a total of 590 beds, including 100 at the Jail Work Center, though the report notes 54 beds at the main jail are currently closed due to insufficient funds. In 2018, the average daily population of the jail was 644, meaning the facility is routinely close to 100 inmates over capacity. That often results in difficult decisions about who to hold and who to release as the sheriff’s office works to maintain levels of inmate care dictated by the state constitution.

“This is not an effort to coddle prisoners or anything like that,” says Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee. “But by the same token, the county has an obligation to adequately house and feed all the people that are incarcerated. And that’s going to require a new jail.”

A toilet inside a jail cell at the Clark County Jail is shown in this photo. Photo courtesy Clark County Sheriff’s Office
A toilet inside a jail cell at the Clark County Jail is shown in this photo. Photo courtesy Clark County Sheriff’s Office

“We can’t even get parts for doors that don’t work,” said Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins of the 35-year old jail, “so for the last 14 years we’ve had to MacGyver and fix them ourselves.”

CFAC went through an exhaustive process, looking at where a new jail could be sited, how many beds should be in it, and ways to phase in improvements. They determined that the current location could be upgraded, or a new facility could be built on Lower River Road, and members of the committee settled on a recommendation of 850-880 beds.

They also determined that pretty much any of the scenarios presented is going to be shockingly expensive.

“It makes the 179th Street project look really small in comparison, when you’re looking at the overall costs,” says Henessee.

Initial costs alone could run upwards of $421 million, according to the committee, including $50.5 million for a new parking garage, and $1 million for artwork in the new facility.

Beyond those numbers, each of the proposed scenarios will require additional staffing and increased operational costs that could push the sheriff’s office annual budget higher by between $46.2 million and $60.7 million.

“It’s going to be a difficult sale,” admits Henessee. “Anybody who says it’s going to be an easy one is clearly delusional, in my opinion.”

Add to all of that the fact that a new jail is just one of the projects Henessee and county staff need to consider. The prosecuting attorney’s office has been operating out of a building that was intended to be temporary … nearly three decades ago, with an aging boiler in the basement that routinely requires patching, and even causes basement flooding on a regular basis. The Clark County Courthouse has limited courtroom space, and if the state provides more judges the county will need to find a place for them to work.

“So, we need to look at this from a comprehensive Law and Justice perspective,” says Henessee. “The jail will be the largest by far because we’re looking to either build a completely new jail or essentially gut the existing one over a longer timeline.”

Following Wednesday’s presentation of CFAC’s final report, Henessee says his department will take over and work to figure out if there are ways to bring about the needed changes at a lower price point.

That means asking a lot of questions.

“Can we add stories to that building at a lower cost?” says Henessee. “Parking is an issue, so can we add a multi-level parking structure on one side, and then add an additional wing over there? Or, can we use the space where the Pepsi building is?”

Prisoners gather inside a common area at the Clark County Jail. Photo courtesy Clark County Sheriff’s Office
Prisoners gather inside a common area at the Clark County Jail. Photo courtesy Clark County Sheriff’s Office

That could mean working to free up funding to hire a consultant who can use CFAC’s work as a springboard to a more concrete proposal with architectural concepts and better pricing data.

Henessee says that will be near the top of his agenda for next year. “(What) I don’t want to do is really lose inertia on this because I think it is a critically important thing.”

But if 18 months of work by 24 volunteer members of the CFAC group results in more time and money spent on more detailed planning, then what was the purpose of it all anyway?

“I think the location was huge, and the bed size is important,” says Henessee, adding that there are more detailed questions to be asked that CFAC wasn’t equipped to answer. 

“If we put something where the Pepsi building is, what happens with the things that are in the Pepsi building now?” he says. “That’s getting into a level of detail that, frankly, I don’t think a committee is well suited for.”

But, Henessee adds, the plan is to keep the CFAC members involved in the planning process, in order to continue getting their feedback. 

The current Clark County Jail has fewer than 600 beds available, which is less than the average daily inmate population in 2018. Photo courtesy Clark County Sheriff’s Office
The current Clark County Jail has fewer than 600 beds available, which is less than the average daily inmate population in 2018. Photo courtesy Clark County Sheriff’s Office

Once a final plan is in place, the next step will be council approval of a bond request to the voters. Henessee is well aware that asking citizens to dig deeper into their pockets won’t be easy, no matter how obvious the need is.

“It’s very difficult,” he says. “You don’t have to look any further than how many jail financing efforts have failed. And those that have passed have barely passed.”

Atkins says his hope is that voters will see the humanity in what they’re trying to do.
“People make mistakes, and this could be somebody in your family that has to be in that jail,” Atkins told ClarkCountyToday.com during an interview in April. “And I’m not saying we should make a party factory out of it, but should it not be a place that is sanitary, that is treating people humanely, that is providing resources to correct their behavior if they want it?”

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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