Rebuilding the jails: Plans take shape, debate continues over $20 million in federal grant money

Target 3

URBANA, Ill. (WCIA)– The Champaign County Sheriff asked for half of the county’s American Rescue Plan (or ARPA) money, about $20 million.

For us, this story began in July with a letter from Sheriff Dustin Heuerman to the Champaign County Board, pleading for aid to improve conditions at the downtown jail.

But really, this story goes back about 13 years to the first time closing the downtown jail and building up the satellite jail was proposed. Nothing ever happened, until now.

A committee was recently formed to plan the consolidation of the two facilities but portions of the community are vocal against federal relief going to this project, and even the committee and the sheriff aren’t confident it will.

Target 3 sat down with three out of seven members of the newly formed jail planning committee.

Leah Taylor, Jail Planning Committee member and Justice & Social Services Committee Chair for the Champaign County Board said, “It’s basically untenable. It’s terrible, terrible conditions in there,” referring to the downtown jail.

“As far as real pressing issues go, I think that that might top the list,” added Board Chair Kyle Patterson.

“As a county, it’s our responsibility to have a jail that is humane and is keeping the inmates safe, and right now, I don’t think that we have that with the downtown jail.”

A rough outline of the renovations was drawn up by Reifsteck Reid & Company Architects. The plan is to close the downtown jail and add two new pods to the satellite jail, one equipped for special needs.

A sketch of the plans for adding onto the satellite jail. The drawing is not to scale.

The committee said these are the “bare-bones” needs.

“The jail is a controversial topic,” Sheriff Dustin Heuerman added. “But the jail is also one of the biggest things that can cost the county liability.”

The county board recently approved nearly $500,000 to move a large portion of people from the downtown jail to other county jails. Sheriff Heuerman estimated, without consolidation, this will be a continued expense, to the tune of about $1.5 million a year.

The sheriff doesn’t believe they’ll have to move any inmates during the proposed consolidation process, but that remains to be seen.

The proposed consolidation will result in a reduction of beds. We asked Patterson if the committee believes the Sheriff’s Office would be able to avoid sending inmates out of the county since there would be fewer beds available.

“Yeah,” he responded. “We have enough beds, but there aren’t enough walls, essentially and this plan would design a jail that has the ability to keep more people separated that need to be separated from each other.”

However, the Jail Planning Committee doesn’t expect the county to spend the proposed $20 million on this project.

“The constituents are not happy about that, at least in my district,” Taylor explained.

Non-profit FirstFollowers has also been outspoken against ARPA money covering the jail consolidation.

“There’s only $40 million in the pot,” shared Marlon Mitchell, the FirstFollowers Founder and Executive Director. “…And then we have broadband that they have to take care of, they have infrastructure that they have to take care of, so where does community violence fit on that spectrum?”

We met up with Mitchell at their new drop-in center in Champaign. The organization started as a re-entry program for formerly incarcerated young adults. They’re also peer-mentors and are available to help direct people to community services of any kind.

“We want to make sure that our communities are seeing the money first, and then after that, we can revisit that conversation because, oftentimes, it’s inverted,” Mitchell added.

“I don’t care how they pay for it,” Heuerman responded.

Taylor echoed, “It has to happen no matter what.”

No matter where money comes from, the sheriff says the situation at the jail is dire.

“Community programs are very advantageous, but we also have to have a humane, constitutional place to be able to have people who are really causing a jeopardy to our community,” he explained.

And whether ARPA money is approved for the jail or not, the new committee is tasked with finding a solution of some sort by November.

Taylor said the goal is to get a final plan approved by the board, by the end of the year. She said it’ll be at least another couple of years before the construction process is complete.

On Thursday, the board will discuss where to allocate ARPA money over the next three years. It’s unclear if a decision about the jail or other proposals will be made then.

Although, Sheriff Heuerman doesn’t believe the $20 million would solve it all. About five years ago, a “pie in the sky” proposal was made, according to Taylor. The total cost, according to the sheriff, was somewhere between $41 million and $50 million. He said the $20 million proposed would cover the immediate needs.

Right now, there are no plans for additional funding and renovations.

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