The study committee reviewing Kewaunee County’s law enforcement facility needs got a tour of the Kewaunee County Jail on Tuesday evening (March 5), seeing firsthand how much the 50-year-old building fails to meet contemporary standards.
Lt. Chris Van Erem walked the committee through a litany of problems, beginning with the non-secure sallyport for unloading prisoners and the main doorway into the jail, which has an obsolete locking mechanism for which replacement parts must be fabricated from scratch because they’re not available any other way.
In the top photo, Van Erem (in the back, next to the shower curtain) guides committee members into the shared space of a four-cell block, with the inmates temporarily locked down for the tour.
Built with 22 beds, the jail has no room for the county’s average daily population of 41 inmates, so the overflow must be transported to and from Door and other neighboring counties. Most of the doors are too narrow to accommodate wheelchairs, the roof leaks, the walls are cracking, and there are blind spots the surveillance camera system can’t see.
Two 911 dispatchers who perform double duty as jailers are packed into a tiny room adjacent to the booking area.
“The heating system can’t keep up with the cold,” Van Erem said. Chief Deputy David Cornelius said during the extreme cold of February, when the outside temperature dipped to around minus 20, he could see his breath inside the building.
In a few months will come the opposite problem.
“Summer is extremely hot, dispatch especially, there’s a lot of electrical equipment in there,” Van Erem said. “We’ve got an air conditioner that freezes up and can’t keep up with the hot days. They’re just dying, sweat running off as they’re working.”
The county recently hired Venture Architects of Milwaukee to complete the first phase of a three-part study into the physical and operational needs of the Kewaunee County criminal justice system. Venture consultants are expected to meet with the committee at its next meeting, either in April or May.
Sheriff Matt Joski said the jail was built in 1969 as a safety building that covered all of the county’s law enforcement needs – not just the jail but the communications center, sheriff’s staff, evidence lockers and more. Through the years those functions have spread out – the sheriff’s department is housed in the courthouse basement, and evidence is stored at the former Svoboda Clock building on the north side of town.
The whole concept of a 911 system didn’t exist in 1969, he said.
“The city of Kewaunee, when they needed an officer to respond to a call, they literally had a switch to turn the streetlights on and off. That notified the on-duty officer that there was a call and they needed to deal with,” Joski said.
A siren at Holy Cross Parish alerted the Kewaunee Fire Department that it had a fire call, he added.
The jail violates many standards that have been set over the past five decades, and the old jail has been “grandfathered” in, but the setup puts staff and inmate safety at risk, the law officers told the committee.
After the tour the committee approved a list of goals for facilities improvements, including to ensure the safety and well-being of staff, inmates and the public; make the court system process effective and efficient; help to effectively manage public safety facilities, programs and staff; and help to reduce offender recidivism.
At the suggestion of committee member Doak Walker, the group added goals about ensuring that taxpayers understand the needs but also that “taxpayer concerns are vigorously represented and debated before making decisions.”
County Administrator Scott Feldt welcomed Walker’s additions.
“Part of what this committee’s charge is is to educate (taxpayers), since this is going to be more than a few shekels,” Feldt said. “That way the public understands why the facility is needed and what the cost is and all the rationale that’s coming into why we’re making this decision.”
Assuming the study moves beyond the first phase and into exploration of a more modern public safety building, Joski suggested field trips to Green Lake and Pierce counties, other smaller counties that have built new facilities in recent years.