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Friday, May 8th, 2009

$12 million jail will be high tech

Sheriff says he doesn't want prisoners to like it there; 'isn't a hotel'

By Shelley Grieshop

Visitation bays are pictured in the new Mercer County jail currently under const. . .

The new $12 million jail won't be flashy but it will have state-of-the-art technology and a design geared to serve the county for many years to come, officials say.
Walls of cement block - instead of more modern dry wall - give an institutional look to some of the administrative offices on the south end of the building, including the one in the far west corner belonging to Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey. And that's the way he wants it.
"I don't want the people of Mercer County wondering why we spent their money on things we didn't really need," he said during a tour this week of the unfinished facility.
County commissioners and Grey have worked closely with architects to keep costs down at the nearly 50,000-square-foot facility. To date, the project remains on budget, Commissioner Jerry Laffin says.
"I've got no complaints with 'em so far," Laffin says of the crew of contractors and engineers.
On the north end of the jail where prisoners will be housed it's even more obvious that designers were instructed to "stick to the basics." The lay-out focuses on security and low-cost operations, not comfort.
Grey chose not to install a door on the small cement shower room for female prisoners to save money and to insure guards have visual access to prevent problems. A woman with the state Department of Corrections told Grey she was appalled at the idea and wouldn't want to be an inmate at the facility.
"I told her that's the idea. We don't want prisoners to like it here," he says.
The floors of the "pods," as the two-story inmate housing area is referred, will remain just as they were poured - cement. It's easy to clean and offers no comfort, Grey says.
"This isn't a hotel," he adds.
The new jail will house about 100 prisoners - 85 more than the current one, which was built in 1939. Male and female inmates will be completely segregated from each other. The cell area includes a "lock-down" pod for those who need to be kept away from the general population. Felons, misdemeanors and sexual offenders each will wear color-coded jail garb for security reasons, Grey explains.
One of the high-tech features of the jail is the inmate visitor system. Friends and family members will be able to schedule online visits from home. When they arrive, they will enter one of seven bays where they can view the prisoner live on a computer screen, via a Web camera. The inmates never leave the housing area; they only get to see visitors through a computer monitor.
"This saves us from having deputies escort them back and forth," Grey says, adding technology has been geared to reduce the number of jail staff needed.
Inmates who have earned trust will help prepare meals in the industrial-size kitchen, which includes walk-in refrigerators and freezers and hefty storage areas. The Department of Corrections mandates the jail have 30 days of canned goods on hand at all times.
Prisoners won't be dining on steak, Grey says. Cereal in the morning, a hot meal at lunch and cold meat for supper will be the norm, he adds. If they want an extra sandwich, they must buy it; the proceeds will defray costs at the jail.
Besides Grey's office, the southern portion of the structure includes office space for deputies and detectives, interrogation rooms and private victim interview areas. Other staff-only rooms yet to be completed include conference space, training areas, a modest gym and separate male and female locker rooms with showers.
The mid-section of the building will include an employee entrance with a handreader security system. Nearby is a small forensic room, a spacious evidence room and an extra-large garage with three doors.
"I think this is about the same size as our current jail," Grey jokes about the garage.
A computer room, which Grey calls the "most important room in the building," is adjacent to the dispatch area. On the other side of the wall is the lobby/reception area where the public will enter. Down the hall is an on-site courtroom, where judges can hold hearings for inmates who can't safely be transferred to the courthouse downtown.
On a recent sunny day, a half dozen workers prepare to pour cement for the floor of the sally port, which is wide enough to park a bus. Another construction crew takes to the roof where giant heating and air-conditioning systems soon will be operational.
County officials this week learned the project is about 13 days behind schedule - in part due to the recent wet weather. However, the time could be made up in coming months, they say. The facility is set to open by the end of October with inmates likely arriving a few weeks later to give staff opportunity to adjust.
Voters approved construction and maintenance of the new jail in November 2007 by passing a 0.5 percent sales tax levy.
Grey admits he's proud the project is taking place on his watch.
"It's an exciting time for me, yes, and kind of exciting for the younger employees we have," he says.
The new jail will likely go down as the biggest accomplishment of his career, he adds. It's been part of his overall goal as sheriff, he says.
"I want people in this community to feel safe jogging down a county road, safe in their community. That's really the goal," he says. "I look at this building and I hope people recognize what we're trying to do."
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