Judges, sheriff to approach county about jail

ALPENA – The need for a new jail in Alpena County is not a new issue. The old facility has served its purpose and now is approaching the end of its useful life.

In a letter to the Alpena County Board of Commissioners, Judges Tom LaCross, Michael Mack, Theodore Johnson and Sheriff Steve Kieliszewski are going to ask that an ad hoc committee be set up to explore options for not only a new jail, but also a new annex building. The four signed a letter that will request the formation of the committee and will be presented at the commissioners’ next regular meeting.

LaCross said there are changes in how the courts will be handled and by having a jail built within the same structure as the courtroom it would make logistics simpler than they are today, as well as be economically friendly.

“We have needed a new jail for decades. We’ve known that,” LaCross said. “The county building is very, very old too. It was built to be a boys club back in the 1950s and the county has made good faith efforts to correct the building’s deficits, but in most cases they are just Band Aids and at some point you would have to believe that it will get to the point to where making simple fixes isn’t going to work any longer.”

Kieliszewski said even with the amount of maintenance done to the jail over the years it is still deteriorating. He said because of the age of the jail, finding and ordering parts is difficult and costly.

“The condition isn’t getting better,” Kieliszewski said. “Fittings for things like toilets and sinks are hard to locate and tend to be more expensive then replacing something that is newer. The roof still leaks from time to time and we have buckets around the jail to catch the water, but we’re managing.”

Mack said he knows there is a need for both a new jail and annex, but is also aware of how difficult and expensive it would be to make one central location.

“At the very least I think the county needs a new jail,” Mack said. “What we want to do is engage in conversation, shop, see if it is feasible. We don’t want to get five years down the road and find out that we have to build one. We could really be in a pickle then. I’m the last guy in the world that wants to spend money when we don’t have to, but when it comes to a jail it is something I think needs to be considered.”

Johnson said he agrees with his fellow judges. He said having the jail and annex together could help operations run more effectively. He said currently with the two courtrooms being across the street from one another, it can become hectic for judges who must preside over both. Johnson is scheduled to retire in 2015 and the state is doing away with one judge from Alpena County. This means LaCross and Mack will have to handle the district cases currently being done by Johnson. Having the courtrooms and the jail in close proximity of one another would help them. He said it also would allow to secure the inmates appearing in court.

“I think it would make things more secure because there would be less transporting and that would allow for more efficient use of personnel,” Johnson said. “Right now we have two different courtrooms in two separate buildings, a jail that needs upgrades, so to combine them does make sense. There are different types of ways you can do this. these are the types of things we want a committee to talk about.”

Kieliszewski said an all-in-one complex would allow for the inmates to be escorted to court and not driven. He said there are times when as many as 15 inmates are transported to court at the same time and it takes as many as three deputies to escort them. He said if the jail was on the same property it would allow for some of these deputies to be on patrol.

“We could have some type of tunnel or system, so it would just be a simple matter of walking them over and back,” Kieliszewski said. “The savings would be huge and any time you transport a prisoner by vehicle there is a threat. This would take that out of the equation.”

Commissioner Lyle VanWormer is chair of the finance committee and a veteran on the board of commissioners. He said he is open to having a committee formed and agreed the jail’s best days are behind it. He said the county is doing the best it can to improve both the jail and annex building. He said he understands building a new jail is needed, but he doesn’t believe it is going to happen any time soon.

“I have no problem with us looking into it, but right now with the decline in tax revenue, revenue sharing and personal property tax there are a lot of questions out there that still need to be answered,” VanWormer said. “At this point, it really is still a pie-in-the-sky type of thing.”

The commissioners meet on Jan. 29 at 2 p.m. in the Howard Male Conference Room in the annex.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5689.