Claims of ‘inhumane’ conditions fuel bid for new Wayne County jail
Robert B. Dunlap, chief of Wayne County jails and courts, talks about the importance of a new Wayne County jail system.
Detroit — It was sweltering hot with thick, stuffy air.
The sun's rays beat through the jail's foggy windows, illuminating brown mildew stains and chipped paint on the walls of the vacant cell.
In that cell were signs of despair: a white sheet twisted around rusted jail bars, a dirty towel hanging from the shower head and cracked sleeping pads folded on metal bed trays.
In the neighboring cell a group of frustrated inmates paced the floors, some fanning themselves with paper. One was shirtless and appeared agitated with the heat.
“When are we going to get some air in here?” the inmate asked Wayne County Jail Chief Robert Dunlap as he led The Detroit News on a tour of the Division II jail on Clinton Street downtown. The jail primarily houses male inmates accused of high-level crimes, such as rape and murder.
“We’re working on it,” said Dunlap before requesting a temperature reading from an officer. The recorded temperature on the floor that recent Friday morning was 83 degrees.
The heat seemed to worsen the grim conditions of the 89-year-old jail.
Malfunctioning air conditioning and heating systems at the county's jails continue to plague the aging facilities. Jail staff members say the air regularly breaks down in the summer, and they have only been able to make temporary fixes.
It’s one of the many reasons why county officials are urging the Wayne County Commission to approve an offer from Dan Gilbert's Rock Ventures to build a new 2,280-bed jail on Warren Avenue near Interstate 75 that would allow the county to shutter its Division I, II and III jails.
The commission's Committee of the Whole approved the deal Tuesday, and it's expected to go to the full board Thursday for a final vote.
The jail would be part of a criminal justice complex that also includes sheriff and prosecutor administrative offices, a courthouse and a 160-bed juvenile detention facility. The complex would be completed by summer 2022 with a groundbreaking this October, county officials say.
Consolidating the three existing jails into one jail would save Wayne County $10 million to $20 million annually, officials say. Operating a single facility with modern functions requires fewer full-time officers, reduces staff overtime and cuts the costs of maintenance at three buildings, Dunlap said.
Dunlap said he is short nearly 200 officers with operations at three jails. Once the county moves to one jail, the chief expects only to be short about 50 officers because all the departments will merge.
Overtime costs also will be saved with one jail. Dunlap said his staff is stretched thin, so it's common for officers to work more than 56 hours a week in the summer.
Maintenance costs at the aging three jails have fluctuated in the past several years based on the needs, officials say. For example, in fiscal year 2008-09, the county spent $5.1 million on maintenance compared to $3.6 million in 2016-17. The county is projecting to spend $4 million in 2017-18.
“There will be a huge cost savings even to the taxpayers of Wayne County,” Dunlap said. "To go from three facilities that have lasted beyond their life expectancy to one facility that is more modern and hopefully a state-of-the-art facility.”
The existing jails have a capacity for 2,951 inmates: 1,157 at Division I, 898 at Division II and 896 at Division III. Dunlap said 1,736 inmates are currently being housed in the three jails.
It could cost the county between $18 million to $22 million to do major repairs, including air and heating systems, plumbing and roof leaks, at the existing jails, Dunlap said.
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said the county's jails have been crumbling for decades, yet the financial crisis left by the previous administration prevented him from making any repairs when he took office in 2015.
Now Evans said he is focused on less expensive fixes since the county intends to close the jails when the new facility is built.
“We are financially able to put more into trying to rectify the situation," Evans told The News. "But the truth of the matter is you don’t want to replace major items only to destroy them three years from now."
David Steingold, a Detroit-based criminal defense attorney, said county jails have had poor conditions since he started practicing law in 1979.
His clients have developed rashes and other skin problems from the dry air in Division II, Steingold said. He believes inmates are "suffering unnecessarily" because the county won't allow the funds to improve the jails.
"Jail is not supposed to be fun; it's not supposed to be luxurious," Steingold said. "But it’s supposed to be sanitary and provide the means necessary for a person to survive and not become sick or diseased."
'Nothing works here'
Division II, on Clinton in the Greektown area off Gratiot, is one of the oldest jails in the country, Dunlap said. The halls of the jail are deplorable: water drips every five seconds from the decaying pipes and the ceilings are marked by dark, ragged holes.
In the medical unit, the cabinet on an exam table has fallen off the hinges and staff members have several portable fans blowing to keep cool.
Dunlap said the Division II jail's floor plan is severely outdated, offers little to no privacy for inmates and contains too many opportunities for suicide.
For example, some housing units have old-fashioned bars with pipes hanging above where inmates could easily hang or suffocate themselves, Dunlap said. Some wards are completely vacated because of plumbing issues.
There are also "dorm-style" cells with one exposed toilet and shower often shared by at least 10 inmates. Inmates are known to hang up sheets for privacy.
“You haven’t been tried and convicted yet, but you have to live like this,” Dunlap said. "It doesn’t afford inmates the level of decency that a human being should have."
Division I, built in 1985 and located on Clinton across the street from Division II, is younger but still faces maintenance issues.
Dunlap said during the tour that the chiller for the air conditioning had broken down, so there was no cold air circulating.
Male inmates in the booking unit were so hot they were shouting complaints and obscenities at Dunlap as he walked through.
"Frankly, nothing works here," one inmate said. "Not even the heat; not even the air."
On another floor, a distressed female inmate said her toilet was overflowing.
The jail primarily houses male and female inmates who need daily mental health services and psychotropic medications.
Other problems at Division I included a broken dishwasher in the lower-level kitchen and outdated computer and surveillance systems that occasionally malfunction.
The county leased an emergency chiller for Division I that was delivered outside the facility last Friday. They also leased a chiller for the Lincoln Hall of Justice, which closed that day because of high temperatures.
The two chillers will cost the county about $120,000 a month total, said James Martinez, a spokesman for Evans.
Martinez said the chiller at Division II continues to operate; however, jail staff is making ongoing repairs to the heat absorbers and circulation fans to improve the temperature.
The youngest jail
Division III, also known as the William Dickerson Detention Facility, opened in 1991 in Hamtramck. It mainly houses inmates that require the lowest level of supervision, Dunlap said.
It's a "direct supervision" style jail where inmates share a common area and officers monitor them from an open counter desk that has a view of the entire room. And the individual cells have doors and glass windows, instead of bars, which are considered outdated.
The direct supervision set-up only requires three officers to staff one floor at a time, Dunlap said.
Divisions I and II have "indirect supervision" where officers monitor inmate living spaces from separate areas. This setup needs four to five officers on each floor.
Dunlap said he expects the new jail to be a blend of both direct and indirect supervision.
Though it's the youngest jail, Division III still has its share of system issues. Dunlap said the staff constantly has to do repairs on the boilers to keep hot water in the building.
"The boiler is well beyond its lifespan," Dunlap said.
Wayne County officials say the closing of Division III alone would save the county about $7.2 million.
Commissioner Diane Webb cast the lone dissenting vote on the new jail proposal during the Committee of the Whole meeting earlier this week.
Webb, D-Livonia, said she agrees Division I and Division II are in disrepair but doesn't see a reason to replace Division III or the juvenile detention center when they are in "phenomenal shape." The county, she said, should instead replace the Lincoln Hall of Justice that's in poor condition.
"I don’t disagree for one single second that we needed to replace those jails (Division I and II)," Webb said. "They have let them go for so long that the cost of repairs would be exorbitant. I just don’t think they should build a juvenile center they don’t need when they have a court they do need."
Commissioner Irma Clark-Coleman said she decided to back the proposal after talking to her constituents who liked the idea of combining three jails into one to save money.
"This to me is the most cost-effective way to do it," said Clark-Coleman, D-Detroit. "The living conditions in there are inhumane."