Montgomery County officials, jail coalition at odds over $20M jail renovation planning



Montgomery County officials say the guidance of a locally represented, expert committee helped inform them over six years of discussion leading to a $20 million plan for improving the Montgomery County Jail.

A local coalition of community members also concerned with conditions at the jail says more could have been done to include community input and the perspectives of inmates.

“Let’s stop playing games about the fact that any part of this process over the last six years has involved people who live in this community, particularly people who are impacted by the system,” said Montgomery County Jail Coalition member Joel Pruce during Tuesday’s Montgomery County commission meeting. " They know the inside of the system, and they know what’s wrong with it and they know how to fix it.”

The Montgomery County commission and other leaders last week announced plans to renovate the older portion of Montgomery County Jail, built in the 1960s. This plan would remove more than 200 general population beds from the facility and add 100 medical beds.

The solicitation of a request for qualifications for mental health, detox and behavioral health units at the jail was approved by the commission at its Tuesday meeting.

Pruce and coalition members Destiny Brown and Yvonne Curington on Tuesday said public hearings or town halls would have been appropriate means to gather the public’s perspective about what its county jail should look like.

“It is understood that this is a vulnerable population when we talk about the Montgomery County jail, and that many people are suffering from mental health and drug abuse disorders,” Brown said, noting the plan’s increase in medical beds from 12 to 112.

“However, it is still disheartening that mental health is criminalized and that for many people, they still have to be incarcerated to get the health care that they need,” she said.

Pruce also raised concerns about the lack of input from Montgomery County Jail inmates.

The 2019 Justice Committee Report given about the jail included outreach to people who recently were released from the jail, but roughly a dozen of the hundreds of inmates that received letters from the committee shared their perspectives.

Montgomery County administrator Michael Colbert said the members of the Montgomery County Justice Committee were from all walks of life and from all over the county.

The commission approved the creation of a justice committee in 2017. Justice Committee members include community members with backgrounds in mental health, ministry, medicine, advocacy, the legal system, law enforcement and more. This includes Dr. Gary LeRoy, Rabbi Bernard Barsky, Branford Brown, Michael Carter, Stephanie Cook, the Rev. David Fox, Kurt Althouse (who replaced Tony Rankin after Rankin resigned), Judge Greg Singer and Caroles Smerz.

Coalition member Curington said she would have liked to see people with lived experience — like someone who has worked with inmates outside of law enforcement or someone who themselves were incarcerated — on the committee. She also voiced disappointment in the coalition’s lack of involvement with the planning process.

The justice committee worked with a consultant to analyze the policies and practices at the jail, a process that took two years. The committee produced a report out of that review in 2019. It became available online to the public a week after it was presented to the commission, Colbert said.

“We’ve got to give the sheriff and NaphCare, the tools that they need to treat people and that is the humane thing that everyone is trying to do,” Colbert said.

Commission president Debbie Lieberman said she and others in county government listened to the concerns of coalition members, especially in regard to the concerns related to building a newer, larger jail facility.

A consultant hired by the county presented a plan in 2021 for a new facility that would cost up to $202 million to create. The county announced shortly after that it lacked the funds to create such a facility and would be looking for other options.

“We heard you, from the very beginning,” she said. “We’re not on opposite ends here.”

Pruce said the coalition for years has voiced a desire to public leaders to create and strengthen community-based services — pointing the county’s crisis response unit as an example — that keep people from coming into incarceration.

“What if we spend the ARPA money and the opioid settlement money to expand those community-based services so those people never end up in the jail?” he said. “We can actually treat them treat the root causes, rather than treating the symptoms.”

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