Renovation brings Rock County Jail into 21st century
Renovation work is now mostly done on the Rock County Jail, and the facility has entered the 21st century.
Rock County officials have spent more than half the life of the Rock County Jail debating and more than $1.7 million studying whether to renovate or expand the facility.
More than once they planned to spend tens of millions of dollars on expansions, but the big projects never happened.
Instead, they broke ground last year on a $5.79 million renovation.
Work is now mostly done, and correctional officer Erin Wilson noticed the difference last week: Her equipment entered the 21st century.
Wilson works in central command at the jail. She was happy to demonstrate a new touch-screen monitor she will use to control every camera and door in the jail.
The Rock County Jail in 1987 moved from a site along the Rock River in downtown Janesville to a new facility north of the city. After adding bunk beds three years later, the jail had enough extra space to house inmates from other counties.
Rock County made millions of dollars renting jail beds, but jail crowding started being a problem in 1998. Eventually, instead of taking in inmates from other counties, the jail had to send out Rock County inmates to jails in other counties.
The number of inmates peaked at 660 in January 2007, the same month Bob Spoden was sworn in as Rock County's new sheriff. At the time, the county was spending millions to incarcerate inmates in other jails.
Spoden's administration began expanding incarceration alternatives programs such as RECAP, an addiction treatment program, and Workenders, a program that lets inmates work off fines.
Things started turning around in 2007, and fewer than 500 inmates per day have slept in the jail since early 2010.
Now, 22 percent of the jail's population is in alternative programs, Spoden said.
The diversion programs are the "key reason" the county has been able to avoid expensive expansion, he said.
The renovations now being completed have prepared some parts of the jail for a future of 1,000 inmates. If the county decides to add cells, the medical facility and other inmate-processing areas will not need expansion, Spoden said.
Many upgrades will go unnoticed by most people. It's not like anybody can see clean ductwork, and even fresh paint doesn't make the concrete block walls cheerful or attractive.
The changes do make things safer and less stressful for staff, Jail Commander Erik Chellovold said.
"It might not look like much to you, but it's heaven to us," he said.
When the renovation is complete, the jail will contain 140 wall- and ceiling-mounted cameras, up from the 35 in place before renovations. Officers working in central command will be able to see every space in the jail, and officers overseeing groups of inmates now will have better views of cells.
The cameras will improve staff and inmate safety, Wilson said.
"I can see all over, anywhere," Wilson said in central command.
Before the renovations, officers escorting inmates out of jail would sometimes run into officers "escorting" combative inmates into processing.
"It was a very stressful job, and it led to a lot of confrontations, a lot of incidents," Spoden said. "It's a totally different vibe now."
The new booking room is bigger and includes separate space for inmates on their way in or out of the building. Inmates can be locked into individual cells if they're causing problems in booking. Or, if they're being cooperative, they can sit on chairs and watch TV while they wait. The room is quieter, and inmates are processed faster, Spoden said.
The medical facility at the jail has grown from a closet-like exam room into a large, bright space with a nurses station, more exam space, cells for inmates on suicide watch or with health problems and expanded administrative and storage space.
You can't get recovery treatment or dietary counseling in jail, but medical professionals will address many medical issues to make people healthy enough to live with the general population, said head nurse Renae Thompson.
The medical issues certainly are there. The baby boomers are coming in with health problems from lifetimes of substance abuse, Spoden said.
Younger inmates tend to have more health problems than inmates did a decade ago because they don't have access to health care, he said.
"Jail is the final safety net," Spoden said.
ROCK COUNTY JAIL TIMELINE
1987—Rock County Jail moves into its current facility at 200 E. Highway 14 on Janesville's north side. It has 310 beds.
1990—The Wisconsin Department of Corrections allows Rock County jail to install bunk beds. The jail has 525 beds, but the DOC limits the jail's rated capacity to 477.
1998—Inmate population spikes at more than 500 people per day. The county appoints an ad hoc committee to study short-term strategies to address jail overcrowding. Numbers decline, however, lowering the urgency for renovation or expansion. Officials predict the jail population will grow to between 950 and 1,500 inmates.
2001—The county studies the possibility of turning the former Caravilla Nursing Home on Sunny Lane Road in Rock Township into a Huber dorm. The option is rejected.
2005—The jail population hovers around 550 inmates. County board committees are in a position to recommend a $56 million 20-year plan to expand the jail to 1,000 beds. The county budgets more than $1 million to house inmates in other jails in 2006.
2006—The county board approves money for a design study for what is expected to be a $56 million jail expansion plan. The vote brings the total for studies and plans since 1998 to $1.3 million. The county creates another ad hoc committee to discuss alternatives and tells the construction consultant to put the brakes on a design.
2007—The Rock County Board approves $592,000 for a new needs assessment and schematic design. This brings to $1.7 million the total spent in nine years on jail studies without breaking ground.
2007—Sheriff Bob Spoden reveals new plans for renovations and construction. He doesn't reveal a price tag, but he says it would cost less than $56 million. By the end of the year, the sheriff's office diversion programs are starting to make a dent in the inmate population, and Rock County is able to stop housing inmates in other counties.
June 2008—The sheriff's office starts the Workenders program. Members of the work crew provide labor for local nonprofit organizations as a way to pay off jail time or fines for nonviolent crimes. The program starts on weekends and assumes inmates have jobs during the week. Meanwhile, Rock County is putting sales tax earnings into savings for future jail construction.
September 2008—After the General Motors announcement to cease SUV production in Janesville by 2010, Spoden announces the jail will not expand. The county board agrees to consider renovations and shelve expansion plans.
March 2010—The winning construction bid for the 2011 expansion is $5.79 million. That's $2.6 million less than the bid estimates.
November 2011—Workers are putting the final touches on jail renovations. The price tag totals $6.6 million.