The Benton County jail in Kennewick may get a 6,800-square-foot addition aimed at better dealing with inmates with mental illness.
The addition, near the existing intake/booking area, would have 21 beds, largely in a mix of single and double cells. It also would have four cells specifically designed for inmates on suicide watch.
The jail doesn’t have dedicated space for mental health and suicide prevention services, but it’s a growing need — one county officials have been discussing for some time.
“It’s an issue we need to resolve. We’re there. We’re at the point where we really need to do something,” said Jim Beaver, chairman of the board of Benton County commissioners.
Commissioners heard a presentation from Integrus Architecture, the firm hired to study mental health and suicide prevention needs and options at the jail, during their weekly meeting Tuesday in Prosser.
The addition isn’t a done deal, but commissioners indicated they want to keep moving forward in the process. A design proposal will come back to them at a meeting in the near future.
The estimated construction price tag for the addition is $3.8 million.
The Integrus team also examined another option — remodeling an existing third-floor housing unit. The building costs potentially would be lower, but the layout wouldn’t be as safe and there would be issues from increased staffing costs to security problems during construction, according to Integrus’ report.
Commissioner Shon Small sees the addition as the better option. “We need to start going toward that direction — start setting a path forward and get this thing going,” he said.
Commissioner Jerome Delvin added that, “it’s not cheap, certainly, to build this, but we could lose that (same amount of money) in a lawsuit.
“I think it’s an opportunity to increase the efficiency of the jail, but also maintain the security and the integrity of the jail,” Delvin said.
Sheriff Steve Keane has spoken about the jail’s “mission creep” from a criminal justice institution to one that’s increasingly confronted with mental health and medical cases.
About 60 to 65 percent of the inmate population has some kind of mental illness, and jail staff so far this year has prevented 10 suicides by stopping an inmate in the act, Keane told the Herald on Tuesday.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Keane said of the direction the project is headed. “It gives us the ability to house more inmates (with mental health issues) in a better environment where we can keep them safer.”
The budget, which has been described as “status quo,” generally maintains staffing and service levels countywide. It doesn’t rely on an increase in the county’s property tax levy rate.
It does include some information technology improvements, as well as capital projects from replacing the jail security system and installing new cameras throughout the justice center complex in Kennewick to some facility work at the Prosser courthouse.
The revenue the county will receive from a 0.3 percent public safety sales tax approved by voters in August isn’t included in the 2015-16 spending plan. Officials plan to prepare a separate budget for that money, which will start flowing in a few months into next year.
The county’s share of the sales tax revenue is to pay for positions and programs from additional sheriff’s deputies to a mental health court.
Among the highlights: the unit has served 1,140 arrest warrants, executed 180 search warrants, jailed 625 people and seized 37 firearms, 25 pounds of methamphetamine, more than half a pound of heroin, 11 pounds of marijuana and nearly $29,000 in cash from drug dealers. More than 300 felony charges have been filed and the county has seen an 80-percent drop in gang-related graffiti.