PORT ANGELES — The Clallam County jail needs more space, and county officials are making plans to ease the squeeze.
While there is plenty of room for more inmates in the 120-bed jail, Sheriff Bill Benedict said the existing footprint is “completely inadequate” for the provision of medical and mental health services, video conferencing and visitation.
“It’s always been kicked down the road because the biggest problem is that all three of those issues entail space,” Benedict said in a meeting with Clallam County commissioners on Monday.
“There isn’t any more space.”
Benedict said he would work with Parks, Fair and Facilities Director Joel Winborn and present at least two options for the board to consider next month.
Options may involve moving Sheriff’s Office offices or squad room elsewhere in the courthouse or possibly off-site to expand the footprint of the jail.
In a Wednesday interview, Benedict said he would prefer to keep his department in a central location in the courthouse.
Benedict told commissioners he would identify cost-effective alternatives, including “Chevrolet and Cadillac versions,” for expanding the jail’s medical unit and communications hub for video conferencing and visitation.
“I’m not looking for frills here,” Benedict said during the meeting.
“I’m looking for something that makes sense, that uses our dollars wisely and allows us to perform our mission.”
The Clallam County jail was built along with most of the existing courthouse east of the historic building in 1979.
Expectations for inmate health services, including mental health, have changed since the jail was built and remodeled in 2005, Benedict said.
“It’s a combination of best practices as well as some of the recent Supreme Court decisions,” Benedict said.
“There’s an expectation that persons that are housed in our jail will have their medical and their mental health needs met. It requires space to that.”
The jail’s in-house medical staff works in a cramped space that Benedict described as inadequate.
“It isn’t much,” he said, adding that inmate transports to Olympic Medical Center were a costly alternative.
Prior to COVID-19, jail inmates had begun appearing in Clallam County District and Superior courts by video feed from a small conference room in the jail.
“That’s been so popular that we now run two video rooms,” Benedict said.
“However, that has come at the cost of the use of the multipurpose room.”
Video conferencing for court hearings and mental health evaluations has moved three family visitation video conferencing kiosks into a hallway outside the Sheriff’s Office near the jail lobby, providing little privacy for visitors.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office recently awarded an $800,000 contract to upgrade the 42-year-old technology in the jail’s control room, which operates locks and provides video surveillance.
Addressing the space constraints before replacing the control system could save “significant money” in the future, Benedict said.
Benedict on Wednesday said he was not proposing to raise the 120-bed capacity for jail inmates.
The jail has been operating at a reduced capacity during COVID-19 and had 64 inmates on its roster as of Wednesday.
Rick McFarlen, county facilities maintenance supervisor, told commissioners that the control panel was at the end of its useful life and could fail “at any time.”
“If that goes down, the whole jail is going to have to be on pretty much keys and radios, because that’s the heartbeat of the whole system back there,” McFarlen said.
“There’s not even parts available for this stuff,” Benedict added.
“You have to either get them on eBay or make them up yourself.”
Benedict suggested that commissioners begin to set aside capital funds for needed jail improvements.
“What I would like to see is some kind of a vision beyond fixing what breaks, which is kind of what we’re doing right now,” he said.
Commissioner Randy Johnson said the sheriff’s proposal seemed “logical.”
“Let’s get the plan in place and plan for the changes that need to be made,” Johnson said.
“Obviously dollars are important, and I get that, but we have to make some changes.”
Chairman Mark Ozias said there was an immediate need for a new control panel and a longstanding need for more space for the jail’s medical unit and communications center.
“If the goal is to get the control panel replaced as soon as possible, we’ll need to do it in a way that will make it functional for whatever changes we’re going to make,” Ozias said.
Commissioner Bill Peach said the county had been “kicking the can down the road” on the allocation of office space at the courthouse.
“I would appreciate a good conversation during budget time on that, with whatever information we have available, even if it’s conceptual,” Peach said.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].