The Houghton County Jail Task Force is now assembled. At their regular meeting Tuesday, the County Board of Commissioners approved the list of members submitted by communities and organizations from throughout the area.
It will be their objective to look at the jail overcrowding issue from all sides and develop a comprehensive solution. Voters have repeated rejected proposals by the county to either build a new jail or to expand the existing facility. The Task Force will take a long look at the former prison, Camp Kitwen, to determine if it is feasible to be converted to a jail.
Commissioner Glenn Anderson was one of about a dozen county officials and engineers who were recently given access to the prison grounds. “Structurally, obviously, the building seemed to be sound,” said Anderson. “Obviously, it needs a new roof to solve the leakage, at least there was a few leaks on the roof. But the layout itself, with the two wings and the 60 rooms per wing, or 30 per floor on each side, was never designed for a jail or even for observation. So, there’s a weakness in observation, I guess, is the biggest issue I see.”
Commissioner Al Koskela noted that all of the plumbing in the facility has been removed. “There isn’t a toilet or facilities in any of those rooms and that would be major—and then you can’t have exposed piping down below and in the ground floor and that means breaking up the slab all over the place,” he said.
The layout of Camp Kitwen is also a concern because it was not built to house jail prisoners and would require extensive renovations to make it secure.
Sheriff Brian McLean said these issues were documented in previous studies but he is willing to keep an open mind. “I think it’s clear that people want us to take a good, honest look at it and we have on many occasions looked at it but people don’t feel it’s been documented enough,” McLean said.
The consensus is that it will take millions of dollars to convert the facility into a jail. Karin Cooper from UP Engineers and Architects also toured Camp Kitwen and she will be compiling an updated report on what the project would cost.
She added that there are five former prison camps in the UP and so far all of the nearby municipalities have passed on acquiring those properties–including Camp Manistique, which is considered to be the easiest and cheapest to renovate. “That was the most viable candidate for converting from a state work camp to a county jail, yet they passed on that,” she said.
Commissioner Tom Tikkanen responded to comments recently made by State Representative Greg Markkanen, who spoke in favor of using Camp Kitwen as a regional jail and possibly even a mental health treatment facility.
Tikkanen said he wasn’t aware of any county commissioners that were contacted by Markkanen and the sheriff’s department was not asked for input either. “I did check with Keweenaw County, they have not heard from him,” Tikkanen said. “I can’t speak for Ontonagon or whoever might be involved with this regional facility, but I’m happy that we have a task force that’s going to be very well represented by Houghton County taxpayers and community leaders. I think we’ll determine what’s best.”
“Frankly, I don’t know that he’s aware of the conversion costs unless he’s had a study done that we’re not aware of, and I doubt that’s been done,” Tikkanen added. “Also, the operating cost for increased personnel, not only to staff it but to bring clients or inmates to their court appearances.”
Sheriff McLean said studies have been done in the past on whether a regional jail would work. “The idea of having a regional jail with four or five counties sharing the cost is a logical leap of faith,” he said. “It makes sense but it doesn’t work because no one wants to go in on a regional jail.”
McLean cited the geography and costs as reasons why the idea is not a popular one.
The Jail Task Force will meet for an organizational meeting on Tuesday, May 28th at 6:00pm in the Houghton County Circuit Courtroom.