Michael Firth and Derek Koch were a couple of hours into their first shift in a new wide-open inmate dorm area at the Franklin County Corrections Center on Jackson Pike.
The two county sheriff’s deputies have been working in corrections locally for years and have spent ample time making the rounds at the county’s main jail Downtown, keeping close tabs on hundreds of inmates. The aging lockup isn’t set up for lengthy interactions between deputies and the people who have been convicted of crimes and are serving jail sentences.
The setup is about to change, with a new $360 million jail set to open next year on Fisher Road west of Downtown. And Firth and Koch are in the early days of a month-long stint in one of three new inmate pods at the Jackson Pike jail, created to help train deputies and prepare inmates for the new approach the county is adopting for inmate management.
On their first day, they stood in one of the pods — essentially a long, open room with 20 bunks and tables, plus a bathroom area with toilets and showers and a separate sitting space — and watched as inmates moved freely around them.
“Now that we’re here, we’re with these guys and we’re walking around, talking to them and getting to know them… now it’s all clicking,” said Firth.
Construction is getting closer to completion on the first phase of the new jail, a 429,500-square-foot building that will include 867 inmate beds. Deputy County Administrator Kris Long said a ceremonial ribbon cutting is being planned for the space in the fall, with the first inmates set to arrive next spring.
“We want to make sure that the sheriff’s office has had a couple of months to have complete control (and) they are able to train” before the facility is fully operational, she said.
A 280-space parking garage also is being built at the site, with a planned completion by the end of the year.
An addition is being constructed behind the first phase that will include 167,415 square feet of space and another 418 beds. Once completed in 2023, it will house all of the female inmates in the county.
The project is being backed by the proceeds of an increase in the sales tax implemented by the Franklin County Commissioners about eight years ago. Once the new jail is opened, county officials plan to close the decades-old Downtown jail, but continue to house inmates at the Jackson Pike facility.
More:Franklin County commissioners prepare to vote on sales tax increase for new jail
The new construction also brings a new strategic inmate management model for county jail operations, including deputies’ direct supervision of men and women serving their sentences.
Deputies will be stationed with inmates in new pods that will include cells, common areas and recreation space. Inmates will spend much of their time in the new areas instead of being moved from room to room or outside of the facility for medical and other services.
The initial booking area of the new jail is more like a lobby, with phone access and other features designed to set a more positive tone for those who have been arrested. There’s dedicated space on site for medical and mental health services. There’s more natural light and fresh air flow and amenities for inmates who follow the rules.
“We have holding cells — there are times you need them,” said Maj. Chad Thompson. “… Look, this isn’t a normal environment, but it doesn’t automatically remind you of a jail. It’s as normative as we can get serving the purpose.”
Follow the rules, and “you can be in a space that is as comfortable as we’re going to be able to make it for you, given the circumstances,” Thompson said. “If you can’t follow the rules and you can’t cohabitate with other people, we have a place for you….”
It’s a big change in facilities and inmate management in the county, where deputies have had more limited interactions as they complete roll calls and other daily tasks.
“Before, I would say we warehoused inmates,” said Deputy Martin Spang, who has worked in corrections for 18 years in Franklin County. “They go into a room, they sit, they come out for a visit… But otherwise, I have a six-second interaction with an inmate.”
Spang, who developed the policies and has helped spearhead the opening the new Jackson Pike pods, said the first few days in the new space was packed with questions from inmates.
“All they really want is an answer from somebody,” said Maj. Mychal Turner. “Right here, they can come up to me, ask me a question, and I can give them an answer, I can give them a response.”
Deputies have been completing training on the new approach to inmate management, but the new Jackson Pike pods allow them to put classroom lessons into real practice. The first opened a little more than a month ago, and a second opened in the past week, with a third, for female inmates, to be completed soon.
The county spent about $1.2 million to remodel nearly 5,800 square feet for the revamped areas. Turner said each pod has 20 beds, half of what the former spaces accommodated.
The new spaces have bunk beds lining the walls and tables with seats for each inmate. There are two televisions two toilets, two showers and two phones, plus a water fountain with filtered water and a sink.
Central in the room is a raised deputy station, though deputies and inmates move about freely, in the same room.
“Here, I have to interact,” Turner said. “I have to engage them in activities. I have to have conversations with them.”
Overall, it’s a better living environment, Spang said. It’s cleaner and free of musty smells from damp clothes or towels hanging on bunks. Clean clothes and towels are readily available, as are razors, soap and cleaning supplies.
“Your dirty clothes go into the laundry, you get fresh clothes on,” Spang said. “You want to change your pants? Change your pants. You want to get a fresh towel? Get a fresh towel. Don’t hoard it, you don’t need to. It’s going to be there.”
It’s not all touchy-feely, heart-to-heart talks, by any means. Deputies are there to ensure rules are followed and issues are addressed quickly.
“I know what everybody’s doing,” Turner said. “… I can monitor whatever their moods may be, their attitude may be… Upstairs, I can’t intervene until it’s too late and a fight breaks out. But in here, if I’m listening, I should be able to pick up on cues and go over and address the problem.”
And it’s still a jail, with those convicted of crimes told where they can be and when.
“They’re still being punished for their crime,” Koch said.
Firth added, “It’s not like they’re roaming the hallways, free. They’re still here, they’re still locked up, they’re still not able to do what you and I or anybody else could do outside. It’s no picnic.”