2016-10-27 / Front Page

Sheriff: New Jail Definitely Needed

By Sam Morgen


Deputy Ed Tremble in the control room of the Mackinac County Jail Tuesday, October 11. Deputy Ed Tremble in the control room of the Mackinac County Jail Tuesday, October 11. A $12.35 million bond proposal for a new county jail and renovation of the current jail will appear before Mackinac County voters on the November 8 ballot. Sheriff Scott Strait hopes the new jail will fix overcrowding issues that have plagued the jail for five years and update the jail’s equipment, which has become outdated.

“I don’t think there’s any question that we need a new jail,” Sheriff Strait said. “I haven’t heard anybody that says ‘No, you don’t really need a new jail.’ Everybody says you do.”

The question, he said, is whether the people of Mackinac County are willing to pay for a new jail.

Mackinac County voters will be asked to approve a 0.76 mill, 20 year bond. Sheriff Strait estimated the bond would cost a homeowner with a $120,000 house about $45 a year.


Above: Mackinac County Sheriff Scott Strait holds open the door to one of the multipurpose rooms in the jail. This room is used as a booking center, medical records storage, and nurse’s workstation. Above: Mackinac County Sheriff Scott Strait holds open the door to one of the multipurpose rooms in the jail. This room is used as a booking center, medical records storage, and nurse’s workstation. The county jail was built in 1972 and can house 28 inmates. It has no cells designated for females, meaning one of its eight cells, most of which hold four inmates, must be left open for women.

For the past three years, the jail has operated mostly above its functional capacity of 25 inmates. Now, when the number of inmates reaches 25, the sheriff notifies judges, who consider the crowding when imposing jail sentences in court.

“We have no space for new prisoners, so we’re turning away certain classifications of prisoners,” Sheriff Strait said. “We’re in the process of releasing prisoners early, so they’re not fulfilling the obligation that the judge has given them.”


Historical records from the Mackinac County clerk’s and treasurer’s offices are kept in the basement of the Mackinac County Courthouse. If the bond proposal passes, the old jail will be used to store historical records. Historical records from the Mackinac County clerk’s and treasurer’s offices are kept in the basement of the Mackinac County Courthouse. If the bond proposal passes, the old jail will be used to store historical records. At 28 inmates, the jail becomes officially overcrowded, and a seven-day countdown begins before an overcrowding emergency must be declared and nonviolent inmates who have served 85% of their sentences are removed and other nonviolent criminals are not sentenced to jail by judges at court.

Some nights, deputies spread mattresses on the floor in cellblocks, owing to the lack of space.

In the past year, Sheriff Strait has declared an overcrowding emergency three times.

“Right now we’re only taking felons and certain misdemeanor crimes,” he said.

Sheriff Strait said the jail situation has caused some police officers to question whether they should even bother to arrest some offenders.


The visitation room of the Mackinac County Jail. The visitation room of the Mackinac County Jail. “There are criminals out there that probably need to spend a few days in jail,” he said, “and we don’t have the ability to put them in jail.”

From 1979 to 2011, the county jail has seen a 2.1% per year increase in its daily inmate population.

Data from January 2014 to April 2016 confirmed the direction of an increasing average daily population of the jail.

“That trend is going up dramatically,” Sherriff Strait said.

A variety of factors, including state penitentiaries accepting fewer kinds of prisoners, have led to an increase in the length of stay for prisoners in the Mackinac County jail.

The overcrowding has housed different classes of criminals together, Sheriff Strait said. Career criminals and young offenders are housed in the same cellblocks.


Every night, the jail holds an activity in the programming room. Owing to the lack of space, Sheriff Scott Strait cannot hold as many activities, which he says helps to rehabilitate inmates, as he would like. Every night, the jail holds an activity in the programming room. Owing to the lack of space, Sheriff Scott Strait cannot hold as many activities, which he says helps to rehabilitate inmates, as he would like. The proposed jail, at 88 beds, would give the sheriff the ability to separate inmates based on age and crime.

The sheriff said the amount of beds in the jail could be reduced to 56 if construction costs exceeded expectations. He said the jail’s floor plan would allow for an easy addition of 32 beds if the county decided to expand the jail in the future.

A design of the proposed jail has not been decided, but a few concepts have been looked over by the sheriff and a jail committee. The new jail is proposed to be built on Truckey Street, across from the courthouse grounds, although two privately-owned homes there, if they cannot be purchased, could cause the location to be moved.


Above: Evidence lockers and a restraining chair are held in the intake room of the Mackinac County Jail, which also functions as a garage behind the building. Above: Evidence lockers and a restraining chair are held in the intake room of the Mackinac County Jail, which also functions as a garage behind the building. It would be built on two levels. Inmates will be held on the upper level while the ground level would contain a lobby, and rooms for visitation, GED classes, church services, substance abuse recovery meetings, and jail administration.

Programming gives prisoners a chance to rehabilitate, which Sheriff Strait hopes reduces recidivism among the jail’s inmates. Volunteers want to come in and lead church and counseling services, but the one room available for these services is overbooked.

“If we can get volunteers to help us teach these people to stop committing crimes, then we don’t have to pay for them when they come back because they’re not coming back,” Sheriff Strait said.


At left: Data from 1979 to 2011 shows a 2.1% increase each year in the average daily population of the Mackinac County Jail. At left: Data from 1979 to 2011 shows a 2.1% increase each year in the average daily population of the Mackinac County Jail. Visitors must now walk through the sheriff’s office to reach the visitation room and electrical maintenance can only be accessed from inside the jailhouse, where the prisoners are kept. In modern jails, electrical work can usually be done from outside the prisoner containment area.

Most importantly, Sheriff Strait said, the new jail will be designed so that no additional guards would be required.

A new kitchen aid will need to be hired to handle more inmates, and food and electricity costs would increase.

If the jail has surplus beds, Sheriff Strait said he could rent the space for prisoners from other counties, although not at the risk of overcrowding.

If a new jail is constructed, the old jail could be renovated into office space and for storing evidence and county historical records.

It costs between $300 and $400 per square foot to build the new jail. The sheriff expects the new jail to be about 30,000 square feet. Deconstructing part of the current jail cells will take approximately $1.5 million. A 10% contingency is added for unforeseen expenses.

Sheriff Strait said he expects the jail to be fully built for $12.35 million and be ready for occupancy by February 2018, if voters approve.

He expects the new jail will last 40 years.

If voters turn down the millage and inmate levels continue to rise, as predicted, prisoners will be shipped to other county jails.

“At this point, it’s the most expensive option we have,” said Sheriff Strait. “We can’t find beds next door. We’re going to have to travel some distance to take people to have them housed. Then we have to pay for their housing, we have to pay for their medical, and we have to hire transport officers to actually take these people back and forth to court and for other purposes.”

With proper space for separating prisoners by experience, as well as space for rehabilitative activities, the sheriff hopes the new jail will help prevent crime in Mackinac County in ways the current jail cannot.

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