Saturday, June 10, 2017

Reflections On The Two-Year Anniversary Of The Middle River Jail Buy-In

Middle River Jail
A slightly abbreviated version of this piece by Reta Finger, member of the local Valley Justice Coalition, appeared as an op ed in today's Daily News-Record

What follows is her original version as submitted: 

“As far as this facility goes,” writes an inmate at Middle River Regional Jail (MRRJ), “even the minimum security inmates are locked down 18 hours a day in a two-bunk cell about 11 feet by 6 feet. If the jail is short-staffed, we are locked down longer. One day I was sent to Medical Segregation due to food poisoning from the outdated milk they served us. These cells are unsanitary and way worse than general population cells, and you are locked down 23-24 hours a day.”

In 2014, many residents of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County protested the need for another jail costing $63M, believing that a new facility—paid for with our taxes—would only encourage more convictions and longer sentences. Since 1995, when our current jail was built, incarcerations had climbed 500%, while population increased only 25%. Many individuals, like local criminal justice expert Dr. Nancy Insco, were hoping for a reduction in the need for jail-beds by using alternatives proven to successfully rehabilitate offenders.

The solution, signed July 1, 2015, was a 250-bed buy-in at the MRRJ. Harrisonburg and Rockingham County each shared half the cost of $21,543,588, to be paid over ten years at 2.17% interest—besides $25 per occupied bed per day for services.

At this two-year anniversary, it’s time to take stock of this decision. Was it wise to commit our tax money to this? Has it lowered incarceration rates and provided alternatives that help inmates become contributing members of society? This issue concerns all of us, since over 90% of prisoners will eventually be released.

The local Valley Justice Coalition looks for ways to encourage our civic leaders to lower incarceration rates by every humane, evidence-based, and safe ways possible. Following are a few observations and evaluations about the MRRJ buy-in:·   
Middle River Regional Jail was originally overbuilt, resulting in heavy debt. Years later, Augusta County officials persuaded Harrisonburg and Rockingham County to buy 250 beds at MRRJ.

We now pay for these beds whether or not they are filled. In addition, inmates or their families are charged a burdensome $3 per day. 

Although carefully-arranged tours have shown well-cared-for prisoners, actual conditions are often less than humane. Besides lock-downs and spoiled food, visitors to MRRJ from our area have long commutes, and a lack of quality medical treatment resulted in several deaths in 2016.

On the positive side, MMRJ does provide a work-release program, which our local facility does not. Also, unlike our local jail, it does not require inmates to be in handcuffs when going to the visitor area.

But have we gotten the best possible return for our 2015 buy-in? After decades of experience, Dr. Insco states, "Jail populations will continue to grow unless the demand for beds diminishes. No jurisdiction will ever build their way of the problem."  

Concerned citizens are always welcome at the Monday noon meetings of Valley Justice Coalition at 110 Old South High Street in Harrisonburg.

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