Douglas County sheriff wants to adapt space at the jail to give women more time outside their cells

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Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister wants to consider how to reuse space in the local jail — without adding any new beds —  to help address inequities. 

Men in minimum security at the jail get 16 hours a day of free time within their housing unit, Armbrister said; in that time, they can have visitors, be on the phone or watch TV. 

Women in minimum security, on the other hand, have about three and a half hours of free time each day, he said. 

“It’s just not fair, and I can’t fix it,” he told Douglas County commissioners Wednesday. “… This is something that we want to see addressed and rectified.”

Women constituted about 15% of the jail’s population as of Nov. 3, according to the county’s data dashboard, and the jail was built to house a small number of women. Having only one pod of 14 cells for women in minimum, medium and maximum security classifications has long been problematic.

Armbrister said that at some point in the future, the reuse of space could involve expanding the jail’s footprint, but it is not his intention to expand the number of available beds to house more incarcerated people. 

“We need to look and see if there is a way that we can — really retrofit some of the housing facilities that we have to do this, or does it need to be something that’s built on the side of the building,” he said, “and then we’ll re-evaluate those housing facilities into something else that’s not beds.”

Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said she appreciated the goal. 

“This is not an expansion of the jail. This is remodeling the area that we have, because there’s been such a great focus on making sure that we don’t have low-risk offenders in our jail,” she said. “So we have to make sure that the area that we have makes sense for the inmates we currently have in custody, and making that a workable space is really important.”

Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid said that as someone who has volunteered at the jail, she has seen that it is a “drastically different” experience for women who are incarcerated versus men in the jail. 

The commission agreed to allow Armbrister to begin conversations with design and construction consultants — TreanorHL Inc. and Turner Construction, both of which are currently working on jail maintenance projects — for a study on adaptive reuse of space at the jail. 

The commission will meet next at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 17. They will discuss two competing proposals for misdemeanor criminal defense services. There will be no meeting the following Wednesday, which is the day before Thanksgiving. 

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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