As the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail begins planning long-term renovations, members of the public expressed a desire to focus on improving the quality of life for inmates rather than expanding capacity.
Earlier this year, the ACRJ Authority Board began the lengthy process of renovating the jail, a process which is dictated by the state General Assembly and is not anticipated to end until 2025.
Though not a short process from start to finish, a needs assessment study and outreach stakeholder sessions need to happen by the end of the year in order to meet the deadline for a draft of a planning study that will be submitted to the General Assembly.
Much of the potential capacity expansion will be guided by a needs assessment, which will examine anticipated growth within the three localities, crime trends, criminal justice reforms and other factors to forecast the future number of inmates. That assessment has not yet been conducted and is thus not currently part of the renovation plans.
ACRJ has been renovated and expanded a few times since 1975, with the most recent expansion increasing the jail to 329 beds. The jail holds inmates from Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle and Nelson.
The renovations are being planned by Moseley Architects, which has handled a slew of other similar jail projects throughout the commonwealth.
Thursday evening, representatives from the jail and Moseley Architects answered questions and listened to suggestions during a virtual community outreach session. The meeting was sparsely attended but attracted a good deal of conversation around the jail’s needs.
According to Martin Kumer, superintendent for ACRJ, the jail currently has 305 inmates in the facility and 50 inmates out on home electronic incarceration — the lowest in 25 years. The renovations aren’t planned for the entire approximately 150,000 square-foot facility, but an area around the third of that size, he said.
Kumer presented a slide including a significant number of proposed changes received from members of the community over the years, including: improved access that meets Americans With Disabilities Act compliance; a community garden for inmates; outdoor recreation space; improved maintenance; and larger classrooms, among other things.
“Money is an object, especially when it comes to taxpayer dollars and feasibility,” he said. “We may run out of space at some point and so many things cannot be approved, but we do want to prioritize as much as we can of what the community wants to see in this building.”
Kumer said inmates have not yet been consulted about what changes they would like to see in the jail but will be able to offer input by the time the planning process ends.
Among the people who spoke at the meeting was Susan Perry, who said that she appreciates that the intention appears to not be focused on adding more beds. Due to diversionary programs, changes to how crimes are prosecuted in Albemarle County and Charlottesville and changes to state law, less people are currently being incareceted in the jail, she said.
“When I was in criminal justice school a professor talked about a really good diversion program where everyone was interviewed and they found better places for them to be before court,” she said. “But when the judges saw the empty beds they filled them up. So it’s kind of like that thinking that if you build it they will come, so this list is nice to see.”
Tony Bell, Moseley Architects’ managing principal, emphasized that the diversionary programs and prosecutions are all things that the jail has no decision in.
“When the inmates show up from court or from local law enforcement, the jail does not have the ability to say, ‘we don’t have room. Those decisions are dictated by law enforcement and by the judges.’” he said. “The jail is like the caboose on the train; they’ve got to accept who shows up on the sidewalk.”
Moseley Architects can put a net zero bed increase in the planning study, Bell said, but then the weight would fall on the community to make sure commitments to a zero population growth are being upheld.
Much of the meeting ended up on the subject of the potential need for capacity increase, with speakers split on a desire to not push for an increase and the reality that an increase in population might be a reality.
However, the capacity issue is not considered settled, Kumer said, and even if the capacity study indicates a need for more beds, the Authority Board does not have to approve the increase.
For now, the design for this jail is not even close to being done, he said, and what has been presented so far are just ideas.
“We want to make an environment here that’s more conducive to reducing recidivism in programming, as opposed to the ‘lock them up throw away the key’ type of mentality that was in place in 1975 when this place was designed and built,” Kumer said. “The renovation will happen to some degree, but to what degree is still to be decided.
ACRJ and Moseley Architects will hold another community engagement session in October to again consult with members of the public before drafting a planning study.