Broken locks, bursting pipes: A glimpse of the crumbling Jackson County jail

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JACKSON, MI — When Gary Schuette began his duties as Jackson County Sheriff, he thought repairs to the handicapped ramp at the front of the department’s office building would be the toughest construction job. important that he would need to supervise.

It wasn’t until May 2021 that Schuette was able to give a full tour of the prison at 212 W. Wesley St., after learning that the building had much more urgent maintenance needs.

‘Shocked’, ‘appalled’ and ‘disgusted’ are all good words to describe Schuette’s reaction to what he saw on that tour, he said, which is why he is now campaigning for build a new prison.

“When I walked through (the prison), I couldn’t believe the state of disrepair it was in,” Schuette said.

The department is currently working with an architectural firm on plans to build an addition to the second county jail on Chanter Road. Schuette’s goal is to keep the project within the $40-50 million price range. The sheriff plans to work with the Jackson County Board of Commissioners throughout June and July to devise a method to raise those funds through an increase in the county’s mileage tax. A mileage proposal could be presented to voters in November.

The old prison

Wesley Street Jail was built in 1952 and first occupied by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in 1953. In an effort to combat overcrowding, additions to the building were added in 1978 and 2004, allowing department to accommodate up to 185 inmates. .

Overcrowding problems were further alleviated in 2004 with the construction of a second prison located at 1995 Chanter Road. The Chanter Road open barrack style facility is currently used to house lower priority inmates and can house a total of 252 inmates.

As it was built at a time when it was to be used as a fallout shelter, the Wesley Street building is fitted with two-foot concrete side walls, as well as 16-inch interior walls throughout the facility, said Schuette.

“It created a lot of challenges for us to get Wi-Fi and different cords in the facility to be able to accommodate the Zoom short and those kinds of issues,” Schuette said.

However, the building envelope is not the only problem – even more serious signs of degradation can be found throughout the facility, right down to the core.

“There is always a leak somewhere”

For some, Flex Seal is a product best known for its goofy commercials where CEO Phil Swift demonstrates the product’s instant repair capabilities in a variety of entertaining ways.

For staff at Wesley Street Jail, the thick, rubbery sealant might be one of the only obstacles to disaster.

The building’s boiler room contains multiple pipes held together by little more than Flex Seal and constant maintenance, and major electronics for the building’s telephone systems are located precariously within easy reach of the leaking piping system.

The type of structural weaknesses exposed in the boiler room are found throughout the 70-year-old facility.

“(The leaks) are going to happen somewhere, we just don’t know where,” Jackson County Jail Captain Anthony Stewart said. “There is always a leak somewhere, if not several.”

The facility’s sewage system is as old as the building itself, Schuette said, and hasn’t had a complete overhaul since it was built. Decades of use and punishment have not strengthened the system.

“Inmates don’t want to be here, so they do all kinds of different things — they’ll throw their pants, they’ll throw their shirts and socks down the toilet just to cause trouble and clog the drains,” Schuette said. .

On several recent occasions, a plumbing crew using a Roto-Rooter tool with a drill attachment attempted to clear a blockage from a drain, only to have the drill diverted, smashing the pipe instead.

“The clogs are stronger than the pipe,” Schuette said.

Like the facility itself, many of the prison’s door and cell locks are also around seven decades old, break frequently and need repair.

When trials began to resume after several months of delays due to COVID-19 security concerns, a maximum-security cell door would not open due to a broken lock, Schuette said, forcing staff from prison to set fire to the hinges of the door.

Since the door itself was decades old, it was impossible to find replacement parts, Schuette said. Eventually, the sheriff’s office brought in a specialist from Wisconsin who was able to rebuild the door and create new hinges at a cost of $4,500.

“(The locksmith) said, ‘Gentlemen, you have a problem here, because all these doors are going to go wrong very soon,'” Schuette recalled.

The prison’s electronic locking system is also faulty, requiring many doors to be opened using keys. Replacing the outdated system could cost at least $25,000 – a figure Schuette believes is optimistic.

A new prison

Plumbing and locking issues are far from the only issues facing the building. Outdated camera systems and the layout of the cells themselves often hamper staff efforts to closely monitor inmates, Schuette said.

The ground under the building’s parking lot also appears to be gradually sinking, creating a widening gap under the perimeter fence gate and causing the 1978 addition to the prison to gradually detach from the older part of the building. .

Schuette’s current plan to improve conditions for staff and inmates includes building an addition to the Chanter Road facility, allowing all inmates to be housed under a new, improved roof.

“My main goal here is to have a new prison,” Schuette said. “It’s not necessarily for me to have a new building of offices and administrative services. If we are able to accomplish this in a cost-effective way, we will try to do so, but the main thing is to have a new prison — one in which members of Parliament can work safely, and one that is safe for prisoners too.

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