BLOOMINGTON — The finishing touches are underway on the new addition to the McLean County jail as construction on the $39 million project enters its final phase.
The 80,000-square-foot addition, located just east of the existing facility, will increase the county's inmate capacity from 225 to 354 beds when it is occupied. A bridge connects the new facility with the current jail that is part of the Law and Justice Center downtown.
During a tour of the new facility last week by members of the McLean County Public Building Commission (PBC), officials got a firsthand look at the changes the three-story building will bring to county corrections.
PBC Chairman Tom Novosad said he noticed "the painstaking efforts to make sure everything is secure" in the building.
The work that began in the spring of 2017 has gone smoothly, said Sheriff Jon Sandage, adding the planning by county staff to design a building that fits the county's needs has paid off.
"We toured three or four jails as part of the preparation that went into designing the project. We wanted to make sure it was functional as well as safe when it was completed," said Sandage.
Jail administrator Jamie Kessinger said the new facility will allow jail staff to house inmates appropriately, a process that ended several years ago when the jail became overcrowded.
"Now we should have a place to separate good behavior from bad behavior," said Kessinger.
Inmates who misbehave will be placed in areas called sub-day rooms for their out-of-cell time. The space is an alternative to the isolation of disciplinary segregation.
Areas specially designed to house mentally ill inmates will replace the current booking area where special-needs inmates are currently detained.
Noting that "it kind of tears me up that we need this," PBC Commissioner George A. Farnsworth said the new mental health unit will help those who may not otherwise receive care.
With completion of the special-needs area, the jail's booking area will return to its intended function of processing people who are arrested and booked into the jail, said Sandage.
The county will add five employees when the new facility opens. A full-time counselor was added to the staff last year in anticipation of the expanded behavioral health unit.
The building is 85 percent complete, John Bishop, senior architectural manager for Farnsworth Group, told the tour group. Walls have been painted and some furnishings are in cells. The furnishings with softer, less institutional design for the mental health area are expected soon.
The jail expansion comes fives years after a study by the National Institute of Corrections on the housing and treatment of mentally ill inmates at the jail. The NIC review requested by former Sheriff Mike Emery led to an initiative to improve mental health care spearheaded by the McLean County Board.
McLean County operates "clearly one of the most professionally managed and forward-thinking county jails in the nation," NIC consultant Ken Ray wrote in his report. The development of a mental health unit to provide the constitutional level of care lacking for mentally ill inmates was among the consultant's recommendations.
The mental health area includes rooms for counseling, classes and separate day rooms.
In addition to the behavioral health unit, the expansion also provides space for 76 female inmates currently housed in the older section of the jail. A study by Illinois State University graduate students of women housed in the jail showed a high incidence of mental illness and physical and emotional abuse among women, making them likely candidates for mental health services.
The updated housing unit will help abused women avoid more trauma, said ISU professor Dawn Beichner, who supervised the jail study.
One inmate shared a story with ISU students of how the jail experience brought back memories of her childhood abuse.
"Each night, as she lay there in the communal space, she was flooded with anxiety and memories of her past abuse. The new unit has the ability for people like her to have private space," said Beichner.
Plans for remote video visitation between inmates and their loved ones will benefit the children of inmates who will be able to stay home during conversations with their parents, said Beichner.
The cells that now house female inmates will be removed as work moves forward on a new medical department for the jail. The expanded medical area replaces cramped space shared by nursing staff and treatment rooms where inmates received medical and dental care.
The medical department "is safer for the staff and gives us the ability to see more inmates at the same time," said Sandage.
The project has attracted the attention of other sheriffs and construction firms, said Sandage. Sheriffs attending a recent conference in the Twin Cities took advantage of an invitation to tour the addition. Attendees at a conference on jail construction also recently toured the building.