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'Vacancy' at New Detention Center

$80 million bond referendum is proposed for courthouse, parks.

In the vernacular of Fairfax County, it’s called “the Sequel.”

That’s a wry description of the new, state-of-the-art Adult Detention Center, which opened to fanfare in November 2000. It’s still more than half empty, said Fairfax County Sheriff Stan Barry; with one and a half of the jail’s four floors in use.

Most prisoners are still housed in the “old” jail, which employees refer to as “the addition.”

In the meantime, he said, there are problems with “the Sequel’s” state-of-the-art computerized system that controls the doors. It’s operated from a touch screen, an electronic system “that will frequently act up for no known reason,” Barry said.

“When you have to reboot the system, you have 15 to 20 minutes that everybody is stuck and no doors can open or close,” not a good thing in a jail, Barry said wryly.

“Some people say there is no way you’re going to get computers that won’t ‘go down,’” he said.

“A LOT OF US were very surprised when we first learned the jail was not in full use,” said Supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully). “We instructed [County Executive] Tony [Griffin] to come back to us with some plans for how to better utilize the space.

“It is very difficult to justify to the taxpayers that we just spent $80 to $90 million for the new jail,” said Frey. “We asked the voters for the money. We put the referendum up there. If anyone’s going to look foolish, it’s all of us.

"When you let it sit empty, you’d better explain to the public why.”

The prison population fluctuates between 1,000 and 1,200, Barry said.

For now, as before the Adult Detention Center was built, prisoners are housed with two people in cells that were intended for one person.

One person sleeps on a mattress on a concrete slab. The other mattress goes on the cell floor, with the second prisoner’s head close to the toilet.

By day, Barry said, “They all get locked in a day room. That space is a little smaller than this office,” he said, gesturing to the space in his office in the Jennings building — the County Courthouse — that is generous for one man and a desk.

“Obviously, we would like to relieve that overcrowding,” Barry said.

It would take about 50 new deputy positions to open another floor to house 200 more prisoners in the new adult detention center. And it takes about a year to train them.

But because of the anticipated budget bind, Barry said he requested no new positions for FY 2003 meaning the county won’t be able to open another floor of the jail before July 2004, at the earliest.

“I THOUGHT THE FUNDS would be better funneled into the public safety response” to problems associated with terrorism. While conditions at the jail are “certainly uncomfortable,” Barry said, “There’s no serious problem. It’s not cruel and inhumane.

“The budget process is very definitely a zero sum game,” he said. “Any money directed to staffing here would not be available to the health department, police, and fire [and rescue] to deal with incidents, or several incidents, in Fairfax County.”

In addition, Barry said, “We’ve taken over a significant number of duties and positions from the police department, including operation of a satellite booking substation in the Mt. Vernon district.

The sheriff’s office also provides employees to staff a “live scan” machine that makes electronic fingerprints for a state data base when prisoners are booked. “We already had them on site. It just made sense for us to do it,” Barry said.

But 27 positions needed for those two functions are not included in the budget, Barry said, so he’s using existing staff on overtime pay, fine for the short term.

But “by the second year, we’ll start getting a significant amount of burnout, and people just can’t perform their jobs as well after a while, he said.”

Barry sees thinner staffing as a response to budget pressure. “When you hit lean times, you have to tighten up on salaries,” he said.

ON FEB. 25, Supervisor Gerald Hyland (D-Mt. Vernon) asked the county staff to report back to the Board of Supervisors about the possibility of housing federal prisoners in the new jail.

“We authorized the expansion of the jail at a time when we had a significant issue of jail overcrowding, and a major concern that we would not be able to house the prisoners who came into our system. “We had a bond [referendum and] we authorized construction of the jail,” Hyland said.

“Clearly things have changed since then. There’s been a decrease in crime, and in the number of prisoners who need to be incarcerated.

"That’s why I asked: is there, for us, an opportunity to look around the region, and pay us to incarcerate those prisoners here in Fairfax so the jail space can be used for the purpose for which it was built,” Hyland said.

“It may be a win-win for us, and for some other jurisdiction that is under pressure to build a new jail. In the past, we have always had the issue of prisoners who were sentenced by the state, and the amount of reimbursement we get from the state.

“It’s not an uncomplicated subject, but it is one we need to look at, and see if there is a way we can use a brand new facility that was built for a purpose," Hyland said.

ON NOV. 5, Fairfax County voters will be asked to consider an $80 million bond referendum to fund construction of a new courthouse, improvements at the existing courthouse, and land acquisition for parks.

It would be divided with $60 million for public safety and $20 million for parkland and development

As part of his proposed Capital Improvement Plan for FY 2003, Fairfax County Executive Tony Griffin said the county needs $21 to $25 million to improve the “air handling system” at the existing courthouse, known as the Jennings building.

That’s to replace the heating and air conditioning systems, said Fairfax County Supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully).

“Your fingertips get numb,” said Barry. “It’s hard to get people to work efficiently when their offices are 48 degrees.”

GRIFFIN PROPOSES that $20 million in bond money for parks be divided between land acquisition and development.

Of the public safety funding, $35 million would be used to expand the courthouse and tie it in with the existing structure.

Another $25 million would be used to renovate the Jennings building and improve the ventilation system.

In 1998, voters approved two bond referenda: $87 million for parks included $20 million for land acquisition and $55 million for park development for the Fairfax County Park Authority and $12 million for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Another bond referendum for $99.92 million for public safety included $92.5 million to expand the Judicial Center, with the State of Virginia expected to provide another $33 million.

That bond also funded new police stations in Mt. Vernon, West Springfield, Sully Districts, one new fire station, and improvements to others.