VERONA — Three Harrisonburg City Council members toured the crowded Middle River Regional Jail on Saturday morning and said they remained committed to depopulate the jail without a capital project for more cells.
“I’m leaving here today similar to how I came in — knowing that expansion is definitely not something that I foresee myself supporting,” said City Councilman Sal Romero in the parking lot outside an entrance to MRRJ. “But nevertheless, I think some of the information that was shared with me today, with us, is very important to consider.”
On the tour, Romero said the City Council members saw how the facility transformed different spaces to accommodate the number of inmates.
“So there might be an opportunity to look at things that can be done within the structure they already have, but the three of us have to really think about it as individuals and consider all the things we’ve heard today,” he said.
Romero’s fellow members on the dais, Laura Dent and George Hirschmann, also toured the facility on Saturday morning. They also said some work that does not include an expansion may be necessary to improve conditions at the jail.
“I understand they need some upgrades to make the existing facility work,” Dent said. “A little bit more in the kitchen, a little bit more in rehab and mental health. Well, I’d rather not see mental health patients housed here.”
“If in fact [facility work requests] are just to increase capacity, then that doesn’t do it for me,” Hirschmann said. “I would like to see more rehab done and I don’t know how much money they need in order to do that. That might just be a personnel thing. But to just build more beds — I think there has to be a different approach to satisfy me.”
The council members did not speak with inmates about conditions, according to Dent.
Romero said he can see how hard the facility is working to handle the crowding and his mind has not been changed from seeking alternatives to reduce the inmate count.
“I think the mitigation [methods] we’ve talked about can be potential solutions, long-term, to reduce the numbers,” Romero said.
Again, Dent and Hirschmann were in agreement with their fellow council member.
“Not just bricks and bars, it’s what are the upstream investments in the community that can reduce incarceration and recidivism so we have fewer people in jail,” Dent said.
Romero said he didn’t see anything different from when he first toured the facility after his election to council in 2018. However, he said the number of inmates has been reduced from over 1,000 to 783 since he toured it before to Saturday.
“Nevertheless, we’re still close to 200% capacity,” he said.