BLOOMINGTON — Fourteen female inmates settled into their cells in the new addition to the McLean County jail Monday as the first group of inmates was transferred to the new facility.
The three-story addition expands the jail's capacity from 225 to 438 beds and includes a 68-bed unit for women. Construction on the $39 million project was wrapped up in December, with staff training and final inspections recently completed.
McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said the women who crossed the bridge linking the two jail facilities will be housed in a space that offers advantages for staff and inmates. Access to natural light, video visitation and more phone privileges are a few of the changes inmates will notice, said Sandage.
The sheriff, Chief Deputy Greg Allen and jail Superintendent Jamie Kessinger joined correctional staff for transfer of the first wave of inmates to move into the 213-bed facility.
The women are leaving the oldest section of the existing jail with its iron bars and drafty quarters. The former female area is part of an area under renovation and will reopen this summer as part of a new medical department and infirmary.
Kessinger said the female inmates "will have a big learning curve" as they adjust to the direct supervision model of having an officer in their midst at all times. In the former quarters, women were in a dormitory setting where officers checked on them on a regular basis.
The next transfer of inmates will include those moved into the new, dedicated mental health unit, said Sandage.
Key to the McLean County's Board's proposal to build the new detention center was the need to provide more comprehensive mental health services in the community.
For many individuals, the jail is the source of their mental health treatment. Without a link to services post-release, people lose the ground they gain while incarcerated, the county argued in a 2015 Mental Health Action Plan.
The current policy of holding mentally ill inmates for long periods of time in the booking area will change with the opening of the new facility. The cells designed for temporary stays for new detainees often serve as long-term housing for inmates too unstable to be placed in general population.
"The booking area will now be used for its original intent," said Sandage.
The transition of detainees into the addition will be slow and measured, said the sheriff, to give inmates and staff time to adjust to the new facility. About 100 inmates will remain in the former jail as the staff takes advantage of the ability to classify inmates by their offenses and needs.