The Rockingham County Board of Supervisors will continue to weigh options for the proposed Middle River Regional Jail expansion following Wednesday’s public hearing.
Four members of the public spoke in opposition to the expansion, but not before Frank Sottaceti, the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County criminal justice planner and crime analyst, could provide insight on work he has been doing since starting the job in March.
Sottaceti is tasked with generating recommendations to reduce incarceration rates and evaluating the local criminal justice system. Since April, he has been gathering and analyzing data pertaining to MRRJ and Rockingham County Jail’s average daily population.
As of Wednesday, there were 339 inmates at the county jail and 848 inmates at MRRJ, Sottaceti said. Middle River can safely house 903 inmates, prompting the expansion discussion.
“The investment in Middle River Regional Jail is not a simple matter of increasing capacity,” he said.
The criminal justice planner mentioned several alternative courses of action that could address overcrowding at Middle River, such as enhancing services and treatment at Rockingham County Jail and using MRRJ for short- and medium-length terms, work release and individuals without treatment needs.
Alternatives were highly supported by the four speakers during the public hearing.
Ruth Stoltzfus Jost said she is in favor of postponing any decision regarding expansion until more data could be collected and analyzed.
“Majority of the people in jail are for low-level crimes,” she said. “We don’t have enough data. We need to look at the numbers and data to see how to reduce our [inmate] numbers.”
Ann Pettit, an associate pastor at Massanutten Presbyterian Church, also said she is in favor of seeking alternatives and applauded Sottaceti for his work so far.
Anna Cubbage told the board that a petition had been started opposing the expansion, which had gained nearly 400 supporters as of Wednesday.
Moseley Architects identified three options to expand Middle River Regional Jail based on a needs assessment and facility planning study it conducted.
Option A allows for 400 beds and room for an additional 400, creating a total of 800 new beds. Beds would be placed in a dormitory-style facility that could house work-release inmates and minimum-security inmates.
A building would be constructed in the parking lot area for warehouse space, and an addition to the existing facility would provide mental health housing. In total, the option would cost more than $96.5 million.
The second option will provide 400 beds. Beds would be in a dormitory-style facility and capable of housing work-release inmates and minimum-security inmates.
A mental health housing facility is also included, and total construction is estimated at $58.4 million.
The final option is constructing a separate building for community service work that would house only 200 beds for work-release inmates.
A mental health housing facility is not included. Total cost is estimated at $40 million.
County Administrator Stephen King, who serves on the jail’s board, told supervisors that the board does not want to expand the jail.
“The reality is we get individuals sent to us and we have an obligation to properly care for those individuals,” he said.
If the board decides to expand the jail, construction plans could be approved by July 2022 and inmates housed by December 2023, according to the proposed project schedule.
The General Assembly will need to approve expansion plans. King said previously that the state will contribute 25% of the expansion cost.