There are so many inmates and so little space in the Washtenaw County Jail, about 60 prisoners are regularly housed in the gym.

Sarah Royce
Inmates spend time in a common room. (EMMA NOLAN-ABRAHAMIAN/Daily)

The jail regularly has to lodge more people than it has room for. Last night, it held 52 more inmates than it had beds.

Washtenaw County Jail is the smallest county jail per capita in the state. According to the 2004 census, about 334,000 people reside in Washtenaw County.

With 332 beds, the per capita bed space is 0.993 per 1000 people – well below the state’s average of 1.715 per 1000 people.

Because of the people housed in the gym, there no room for exercise. Cells that used to hold two people now hold four.

The cell block originally designated for disabled and sick inmates now houses healthy people as well. Medical care must be administered in an inmate’s cell because most of the jail’s health-care facilities have been converted into offices or storage space.

“We don’t have adequate space for the daily population,” said Don Bellman, the jail’s clinical administrator. “We have to see patients on the blocks. Is that a good deal? Absolutely not.”

Last February, the Washtenaw County Administration and Criminal Justice Collaborative Council proposed a $314-million millage that would have funded an expansion of the jail and several other changes to the county’s corrections system. Washtenaw County voters defeated the proposal 63 to 37 percent, leaving the jail to deal with the problems of the growing population on its own.

Charles Ream, a member of the No Giant Jail Committee, protested against the proposal.

“It was simply too much taxation,” Ream said. “The project was too big, and was unable to be reviewed by the citizen community.”

The last time the jail was renovated was 1997.

When the jail moves beyond its capacity, a judge reviews the cases of the inmates and decides if any of them can be released, based on their crimes.

Those identified as low-risk can be sentenced to a day reporting program, placed in treatment programs or wear a tether, a tracking device worn on the ankle.

Sometimes criminals with non-violent warrants are not arrested because of limited space in the jail.

“It’s frustrating to police chiefs,” Washtenaw County Sheriff Daniel Minzey said. “Our officers are stopping some people with warrants over and over. What message does that send?”

Sometimes inmates who cannot be released are sent to other county jails. But high-security inmates and those with medial problems cannot be sent outside the county.

“The jail ends up full of violent offenders,” said Commander Kirk Filsinger of the county police. “It ends up being a more volatile environment.”

Minzey said moving inmates to other jails doesn’t just negatively affect the inmates that stay behind.

“The downside to boarding people to other facilities is that they don’t get the same treatment programs they receive here,” Minzey said.

The Washtenaw County Jail offers a wide variety of treatment programs to its inmates, many of which are not offered at other facilities.

Programs include a GED program, substance-abuse programs and anger management help as well as a variety of other classes designed to help inmates become functioning members of society.

Inmate Carl Stambaugh, a former University student, said that because of the range of services offered he doesn’t want to be transferred to another jail.

“There’s always the possibility of them boarding me out,” he said. “Granted, I don’t want to be shipped out. (The programs here) give people a chance to better themselves.”

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