Even if I hadn't been raised in a superstitious family, I’d believe that curses were real simply based on the experience of the Wayne County jail project.

The journey to a new jail began a decade ago. The first attempt to replace Wayne County’s dungeon exploded in the lap of former County Executive Robert Ficano, whose lax oversight squandered a $150 million bond issue and left a useless, partially built structure on the edge of downtown Detroit.

That mess was ultimately cleaned up by current County Executive Warren Evans, who forged a deal with Rock Ventures’ Dan Gilbert to purchase and clear the downtown site and replace it with a $533 million criminal justice complex off I-75 north of downtown. 

The 2,200-bed lock-up is expected to be ready by late 2022, and that should have put a satisfactory end to the sad and expensive Wayne County jail saga.

But well before it opens, the new jail may become another white elephant, thanks to reforms expected to be approved this year by the state Legislature.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's task force on jail and pretrial retention produced a sweeping set of recommendations aimed at sharply cutting the populations of local lock-ups by doing away with cash bonds, reducing some misdemeanors to civil infractions and finding better places to house the mentally ill and substance abusers.

Estimates from task force members are that the reforms, if adopted as anticipated, will cut jail inmate rolls by one-third to one-half.

That would leave Wayne County with a lot more cells in the new jail than it needs.

"In building a complex like this, the decision on size has to made at a certain point," said Deputy Wayne County Executive Rick Kaufman. "We were required to make that decision over a couple years ago. With all the facts available then, we made a deliberate decision that 2,200 beds was the right number.  Frankly, ... our concerns, by far, at the time were that we were going too low. Subsequent events have suggested that the number is probably not too low."

With the jail already well underway, a downsizing would be costly and add further delay to a project that should have been complete years ago.

Macomb County also needs a new jail, but has the benefit of being in the planning stages as the reforms are moving. 

Already, County Executive Mark Hackel, based on the anticipated new laws, has sharply downscaled initial plans, which called for a 1,400-bed facility at a cost of $400 million.

"The new capacity will be about 1,100, and the cost will be closer to $200 million," Hackel says.

And not all the space will be used for criminal defendants. A large portion of the new facility will be set aside for the treatment of mental illness and substance abuse, and will be staffed by professionals in those disciplines rather than corrections officers.

Wayne County is stuck with the larger jail, but says it still will be substantially cheaper to operate than the existing lock-up due to built-in efficiencies.

"Picking the number was both science and art," Kaufman said. "We are satisfied with our decision.”

Catch Nolan Finley on “One Detroit” at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on Detroit Public Television.

Read or Share this story: