MANISTIQUE - Just in time to decide its fate, Schoolcraft County Jail was opened up to the public Saturday afternoon. Tours were provided as a way to educate voters before Tuesday's election on the County Jail Facility Bond Proposal and a County Jail Operating Proposal.
The bond proposal consists of an estimated, non-capped, average millage rate of 1.21 mills per year over a time period not to exceed 20 years. This would be used to fund the construction of a new jail, not to exceed $5.96 million.
The operating millage would levy .5 mils per year for 20 years and raise approximately $170,000 per year to operate and maintain the new county jail facility. If passed, the operating millage would not be accepted by the county unless the bond proposal is also passed.
Schoolcraft County Sheriff's Deputy Kaydean Zellar, left, points out deficiencies in the county jail
On hand for Saturday's tours was Schoolcraft County Sheriff Grant Harris, who has been an advocate for the construction of a new jail. According to Harris, the current jail is so severely dilapidated that a new jail is the only long term way to meet the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) standards.
"Now is the time for action because it's going to cost the county money either way," he said. "The best way, in my mind, is to build a new jail and not try to band aid this one any longer. It's beyond band aids; it's worn out."
During the tour, residents were able to ask questions about the existing jail facility, the bond and operating proposals, and why Camp Manistique is not a feasible option in the county's eyes.
"I do believe that they need a new facility, I just disagree that it needs to be built right here," said resident Shirley Saffer. "I don't see why Camp Manistique won't work. It's a relatively newer building, and I think it needs to be utilized."
A separate tour of Camp Manistique, which had also been scheduled for Saturday, was canceled after the Michigan Department of Corrections refused the request, said Harris.
Left to explain, Harris described to inquiring residents the open campus, low security prison nature of Camp Manistique. Making the facility suitable for a county jail would not only cost more in renovations, but more in operating costs, he said.
"I'm getting a lot of questions about why we can't use Camp Manistique, and I am trying to explain that it's not really the bricks and mortar that are the true cost of a jail, it's the operating costs," Harris explained. "Both plans are a 56-bed configuration, but Camp Manistique has 36,000 square feet that you have to heat and cool. The new jail would be 17,500 square feet."
Camp Manistique, because of its size, would also require three separate guard posts - meaning the jail would need between 13 and 15 staff, added Harris.
The new jail, on the other hand, would require only one to one and half posts, or around 7 to 8 staff members - what the jail currently has.
"We can operate the new jail without increasing or decreasing our staff. Camp Manistique would needmore people, and it costs more money to do that," he explained. "We shouldn't try to make Camp Manistique something it's not; we should just start from scratch and do it right. We need to build something that will be highly-efficient and operable."
As residents weaved their way in and out of the current facility's cramped corners, peeling paint and potentially unsafe conditions, many were quick to comment.
"This is enough to keep me on the straight and narrow," said one man.
Another participant, upon concluding the tour, informed Harris that she was glad she took the tour, and that it was "eye-opening."
Due to the condition of the jail, Harris said he had been expecting comments like those from the woman.
"I'm not a bleeding heart, but I believe that everyone that goes to jail is not a bad person. People make bad decisions and end up in jail and that could be any one of us," he said.
"The people that are put in jail need to be treated humanely and I can't wrap my mind around the fact that the conditions in this jail are just not humane."
As for the residents voting Tuesday, Harris said there is one thing they should keep in mind - money is going to be spent regardless.
"A 'no' vote is not 'no'," he said. "A 'no' vote means that either we are going to convert this into something that the MDOC wants or we are going to start trying to find beds elsewhere and they are hard to find."