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Sheriff’s Office makes case for new county jail

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Hardware, such as locking mechanisms on cell doors, are outdated and difficult to fix, according to the Sheriff’s Office officials. (Steve Van Kooten/Courier Press)

The hallway going to the second floor, where the general population housing is located, presented spatial difficulties for jail staff, emergency responders and other professionals due to maintenance issues and safety concerns. (Steve Van Kooten/Courier Press)

In the stairwell going from the ground floor to the general population on the second floor, a guardrail was ripped from the wall and cannot be replaced, according to jail officials. (Steve Van Kooten/Courier Press)

By Steve Van Kooten

 

Down Beaumont Rd., a block from the county administration building and a few minutes from Prairie du Chien’s downtown district, the Crawford County Jail is among the oldest members of the community. For 127 years the 42 bed jail has served its community through innumerable expansions, additions and re-workings, both big and small.

Russ Wittrig, Lieutenant at the Sheriff’s Office and Crawford County’s Jail Administrator, walked down the honeycomb of hallways on the ground floor until he reached a stairwell. Up those stairs was the entry point to the jail’s general population cells.

“The biggest issue we have is stairs,” Wittrig said. “If you have to take an unruly inmate that’s biting, kicking, scratching into the stairway, it’s dangerous for staff; it’s dangerous for the inmate.” The stairway was a slope of concrete on all four sides, 44” wide with a guardrail that ate up three inches of that valuable space. On the other side, the guardrail was absent. It had been ripped out of the wall and, according to Wittrig, couldn’t be replaced because the holes were now too big from the years of wear and tear.

“We’ve had numerous times where inmates with medical issues had to be transported down those stairs on a gurney with EMS,” Wittrig said. Maybe 44”—41” if you count that guardrail—was enough space, but the stairs included a landing, then a 90 degree right turn into a 36” doorway to exit the stairwell on the ground floor. “This is a tough job, and the building makes it tougher,” Wittrig said.

Wittrig continued through the jail. He pointed out two cells that were unusable because one had a lock broken on the door and the other had a faulty part on the toilet. In a news release, the County Sheriff’s Office noted repeated plumbing issues with showers and toilets as one of many issues the jail staff face on a regular basis.

“We have locks on doors that are constantly in need of attention. The company that made the locks doesn’t even exist anymore.” It has taken weeks to find parts, and at other times Wittrig said third party businesses have come when replacement parts were unavailable to “machine together” a solution. “This happens all over the place [in the jail facility].” One of the cells has been unusable for three months due to a lock malfunction; the locks are difficult to repair and expensive as well.

Current Problems

The current jail is attached to the courthouse, along with the Sheriff’s Office and the Prairie du Chien Police Station. It can hold up to 42 inmates at a time and has an estimated daily average of 20-22 inmates between in-house population and electronic monitoring. Each inmate can have a sentence up to 364 days. 

The previous jail was discontinued in 1896 when it was shutdown and deemed unfit for use. That year, the current facility started construction. Sheriff Dale McCullick stated the upstairs portion of the jail is the oldest operating in the state of Wisconsin, which Wittrig confirmed. Wittrig has been with the Sheriff’s Office for 21 years and operated as the Jail Administrator since June of 2014. In that time, he’s been through 10 reviews with the state of Wisconsin, and every year the state has said Crawford County needed a new jail facility. The current jail only has two receiving cells. The jail has been written up multiple times for inmates housed in day rooms instead of holding cells, which occurred due to a lack of space. 

“Jails haven’t been made like this since probably the 1960’s because there’s too many places to hide—they weren’t made for security; they were just made to hold people,” Wittrig said, “and we know that’s not the best way to do things now.”

Throughout the jail Wittrig noted concerns, such as flooring degradation in cells, the lack of a medical bay and the medical cart is stored in the kitchen. It’s like a dependable car that has started to leak from every place. 

“Everything has a lifespan, and this thing’s reached its limit,” Wittrig said. “We better prepare for the future.”

 

A New Facility

The county has explored options for a new jail, including a remodel of the current location.

“One of the things we looked at doing—for cost savings—was to remodel the jail,” Wittrig said, “but due to the age of the structure itself, it’s not feasible.” Wittrig said the county considered several options to add on to the existing jail, even taking out the Sally Port, but the space needs didn’t work in the available area.

Building down into the basement didn’t work either because of mold and mildew concerns attributed to poor ventilation. “It looks bad; we can’t use it,” Wittrig said. A renovation simply became cost-prohibitive.

Wittrig said the jail has frequently seen inmates with substance abuse and mental health concerns, and a new facility would mean updated safety measures, both for staff and the inmates the jail served. “One thing we’re hoping for is a padded cell, so if you have somebody like that they go in and can’t hurt themselves.” In the case of a self-injurious subject, the current jail has less resources to fall back on, meaning the use of restraint is more likely. New cells with preventive measures and line-of-sight could increase the quality of care and decrease the liability for the jail and the county.

Other features considered for the jail included more natural light, dedicated recreation areas, space for legally required inmate resources (e.g. law books and materials) and increased space for dispatch. In the current space attached to the courthouse, it would increase room for staff trainings.

 The Sheriff’s Office stated there was a possibility new state mandates would increase the maximum sentence for an inmate to serve in a county jail from 364 days or less to sentences of less than two years. That change would likely increase the jail’s annual population and contribute to space concerns in the future.

Considerations for different locations have been explored; however, Wittrig noted no location has been decided upon, nor has a cost been given. The southwest corner of the Courthouse lawn has been considered for the new site. Wittrig and others have examined the Law Enforcement Center in Iowa County, WI, to learn from their experience. The Center, which can house over a 100 inmates, is larger than the proposed 72 capacity a new facility in Crawford County would house.

Additionally, the jail would have a new space for the dispatch, create more room in the current facility to support efficient training for the staff and area for required materials, such as legal resources for inmates.

 

Moving Forward

A board overseeing the project includes Sheriff Dale McCullick; Orin Olson, Chief Deputy; Russell Wittrig, Jail Administrator; Nate Bremmer, Correctional Officer; Jim Hackett, Director of Emergency Management in Crawford County; members of the county board of supervisors among others.

The County Board and Sheriff acknowledged public involvement is crucial. Public meetings may be scheduled in the future and a space needs study will be made available to public once completed.

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