Decade-long, $20 million debate ends with board approval to consolidate county jails

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This article has been updated to include additional input from the board meeting that could not be included in time for air.

URBANA, Ill. (WCIA)– The two Champaign County jails will soon be consolidated into one facility.

The vote on the $20 million proposal came after about two hours of heated debate at the Champaign County Board meeting Thursday night.

It was a discussion that has gone on for more than a decade.

Here’s what was approved Thursday: A plan to close the downtown jail and add two new pods onto the satellite jail. One will be a designated special needs pod, allowing for separation of rival offenders and preventing COVID-19 spread, among other purposes.

A special committee was formed a couple of months ago to recommend a plan to the board. That proposal was finalized two weeks ago and voted on Thursday.

About a dozen people spoke passionately against putting millions into the jail project during public comment.

Those opposed said there are more pressing needs to combat violence by preventing it. They said investing in jails is not the answer. One man, calling the jail proposal a reactionary solution to increased violence in the county.

“But you’re not actively giving the children outside of the jails proper social and emotional learning, programs for them to develop themselves. What about the homeless individuals who will seek or receive half–, I’m not going to say the word but, trash medical care and costs in the county jail before they get it at Carle Hospital?” shared a University of Illinois graduate student.

“We won’t build a society free of harm by funding the institutions that perpetuate it,” a representative with the Champaign County Bailout Coalition said.

Two people spoke in support of the jail proposal, both work at the jail. One was Jail Superintendent Captain Karee Voges. She begged the speakers to put themselves in her shoes, running a downtown jail that is not meeting inspection standards.

Cpt. Voges clarified that this is not a jail expansion. Closing the downtown jail and adding two pods to the satellite jail will result in a reduction of beds overall.

“It is no longer about building a bigger facility,” Sheriff Dustin Heuerman explained in an interview earlier in the day.

“The consolidation will result in fewer beds than we currently have, it’s the type of facility that we have. You know, a lot of people don’t realize that I don’t have any say in who comes to jail. If someone is arrested with mental health issues that come to jail. We work really hard to get them out but I can’t just open the door and let them out. So my philosophy is we have to adequately meet their needs.”

The majority of board members said they don’t love the plan but safety at the downtown jail is dire, something Sheriff Heuerman has been saying at least since July when he penned a letter to the board.

Several board members said it’s an issue that’s been kicked down the road for years and this is a necessary first step.

“I would say that we are behind the times in our facilities,” Heuerman added.

There was a lot of debate over where the proposal pulled funding from, but once it was brought to a vote just before 9 p.m., only one board member voted no.

Here is how the project will be funded:

  • Alternate Revenue Bonds (to be repaid over 20 years): $13 million
  • Federal funding from the American Rescue Plan: $5 million
  • Capital Asset Replacement Fund: $2.2 million
  • Total: $20.2 million

The consolidation project also includes adding a new medical facility and turning the old one into a room for education programming. Additional recreational space and HVAC improvements are also included.

The next step is planning with the architecture firm on the project. The sheriff said conversations with Reifsteck Reid & Company Architects will take most of 2022 and they will likely break ground in 2023.

Here are some of the alternative proposals people opposed to the jail project made to the board, all aimed at preventing incarceration:

  • Hire more workers at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission to help get county rental assistance out the door, to cover renters at risk of losing their homes.
  • Expand workforce training at Parkland College.
  • Improve access to mental and physical healthcare.
  • Reduce or eliminate cash bonds.

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