ON SCHEDULE: New jail expected to open late this year

Construction workers lay masonry for a wall at the new Hancock County Jail. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter) Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

GREENFIElD — As 2021 begins, an additional quarantine space planned for Hancock County inmates is still not available, but its opening is potentially just days away. Meanwhile, as work continues on a new 400-bed jail, the inmate population remains much lower than the alarming level it was prior to COVID-19.

Dustin Frye, the director of construction for county contractor RQAW, said construction of the jail is proceeding well as the new year begins. The facility is set to be completed in November or December.

“We’re right on schedule,” Frye said.

Current work at the site mainly involves interior construction, including installation of electrical and plumbing systems. Exterior work is also being done on the administrative wing of the building, where workers are installing structural steel.

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Frye said the status of the project means workers will likely be able to continue throughout the winter, working mostly on interior construction.

Months ago, RQAW also began renovating the county’s community corrections building as additional space for inmates. Although work in the space is largely complete, a few details still need to be added before the space can be occupied. Air-handling systems need to be installed on the roof of the building, and a public address system for staff use also needs to be added. Both of those should be completed in January, Hancock County Sheriff Brad Burkhart said.

“Soon after that, we should be able to occupy it,” he said.

The new jail, which will cost up to $43 million, will feature one wing Burkhart described as a “rehabilitative recovery pod.” It will be used by those enrolled in drug rehabilitation, high school equivalency classes, or other programs. This will include classrooms and more space for inmates to meet communally, as well as dormitory space where they will be housed.

Burkhart said the sheriff’s department is continuing to research different types of programming that may be available at the new jail. One possibility he’s excited about is therapeutic gardening, which would allow inmates to tend plants in garden plots as a way to teach personal responsibility and other skills.

In 2020, the county commissioners gave their approval to re-purposing the community corrections facility as additional jail space. The space is vacant because the county’s work release program has been indefinitely suspended.

The renovated space was originally expected to be able to house inmates by October, but it faced several construction delays. Once open, it will be able to house 50 inmates, bringing the county’s total capacity up to 200.

While it was often overcrowded before the advent of COVID-19, the jail has been able to reduce its population by sentencing more people to home detention or another alternative to jail confinement. As of Tuesday, Jan. 12, there were 98 inmates at the jail. Before the pandemic, there were frequently more than 200 inmates in the building.

Once the new space is available, Burkhart said, inmates who have been at the jail for some time will be moved there. That will allow more quarantine space at the main jail building. New inmates entering the jail are isolated for 14 days to prevent the spread of the virus.

Throughout the pandemic, no inmates at the county jail have tested positive for COVID-19. Around the country, jails and prisons have been significant vectors of transmission, with studies showing a much higher rate of the disease among inmates than the general population.

“What we’re doing has been working, and we want to keep it that way,” Burkhart said.

Part of the department’s approach, Burkhart said, has been working with the county courts to concentrate on which cases to impose jail time for.

“We just have to use caution with allowing the doors to really open up completely,” he said.

The sheriff’s department has decided not to actively pursue some warrants that are currently open, mainly those related to failure to pay fines and court costs or to probation violations. A new arrest warrant in a case with a victim is something they will always pursue, however.

“We’re just being a little bit selective,” Burkhart said.

He added that as vaccinations become more widely available and, hopefully, COVID-19 cases begin to decrease, this policy is subject to change. Burkhart anticipated that the sheriff’s department would likely start receiving vaccine doses for jail employees and inmates this month.

Meanwhile, the county’s work release program has no clear path to reopening. While home detention is still operating, Burkhart said work release will likely remain off the table as long as the coronavirus is a concern.

Wade Kennedy, director of community corrections, said 108 people were in the home detention program as of Tuesday, Jan. 12. Kennedy said he would like to reopen the work release program as soon as he receives permission from the county commissioners and judges.

“I’m kind of in a holding pattern until that point,” he said.