Sheriff’s Office proposes jail addition, remodeling to deal with COVID-19

Sep. 23—EAU CLAIRE — The Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Office has proposed that federal COVID-19 money fund an addition and remodeling to help the Eau Claire County Jail better deal with the virus and rising numbers of inmates.

Construction costs for the two proposals are estimated to total $6.2 million and could be paid for by American Rescue Plan Act money given to the county. The county has about $14.8 million in ARPA money left to allocate by the end of 2024 out of the $20.3 million it began with.

Neither of the jail projects have been approved. To receive county funding, the two projects require approval from the County Board. The Eau Claire County Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee reviewed the options during its meeting Wednesday before tabling them to its October meeting for further discussion.

The proposed addition would create a fourth pod at the jail to focus on people with mental health concerns, substance abuse challenges and community re-entry needs. The fourth pod would add 100 beds to the jail and allow the Sheriff’s Office “to utilize a current housing pod for COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” according to a fact sheet presented to the committee.

Capt. Dave Riewestahl with the Sheriff’s Office’s Security Services Division told the committee that the additional pod is needed to address the area’s ongoing challenges.

“Am I excited to say that we need to build the fourth pod? No, I’m not,” Riewestahl said. “But, because we as a community haven’t figured out how to change our jail population trajectory, this is the lens that I have to look through.”

The pod is estimated to cost $4.75 million to construct over the course of two years. The county would then have to spend an estimated $2.39 million per year with annual inflation costs to operate the pod.

“That is one of those cautionary things with the ARPA dollars: be careful what you invest in,” county Finance Director Norb Kirk said during the committee meeting. “It’s not just the construction. It’s going to be, ‘What do we have to do to pay for it after?'”

The second proposal involves remodeling the jail’s booking area. That remodeling is expected to cost $1.46 million to construct over the course of one year and cost $500,000 per year with annual inflation costs to operate.

The remodeling would add 14 beds and create more room to house people undergoing a 14-day quarantine as they enter the jail, a COVID-19 safety precaution.

Riewestahl said that precaution is made impossible by the increasing number of incarcerated people entering the jail, which results in less space to ensure physical distancing.

“We as a jail can’t keep up with the inflow of people coming in and the 14-day quarantine period,” he said.

Indeed, the county jail’s population has grown in recent months. In August, its average daily population was 207 people. That is up from an average daily population of 204 people in July and 178 people in June.

The number of people held in the county jail substantially decreased at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring as a public health measure, going from an average daily population of 217 people in January 2020 to 115 people in April 2020. Now the jail population is approaching pre-pandemic levels when the potential spread of the virus remains a public health risk, particularly for unvaccinated individuals.

The jail population decrease last year “was simply survival, and that’s where we are right now,” Riewestahl said. “We are trying to survive, and our facility is seeing more COVID-positive people come. The jail is the community and the community is the jail. When the (COVID-19 case) numbers rise in the community, the numbers rise in the jail.”

As of Monday, the county jail has two active cases of COVID-19, both among incarcerated people. According to county data, the jail has administered 776 COVID-19 tests, 46 of which were positive, which is a 5.9% infection rate. Forty-four people have recovered, and there have been zero hospitalizations or deaths.

There was a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the jail on Sept. 1. Riewestahl said 25 people received vaccinations, most of which were the first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

Riewestahl said the virus has impacted both incarcerated people and staff at the jail and presented constant challenges.

“We’re getting through it, just like the rest of the communities and businesses are, as best we can,” Riewestahl said.

County Supervisor Melissa Janssen thanked Riewestahl and his colleagues for their ongoing efforts.

“Having the health and safety of so many individuals under your care has to be extremely stressful,” Janssen said. “We see you and we thank you for all of your hard work.”

Worker bonuses

The Sheriff’s Office also requested that ARPA money be spent to give every employee a one-time bonus of $5,000 for their essential work during the pandemic.

The Sheriff’s Office has about 115 full-time employees, none of whom are able to work remotely because of the nature of their jobs, according to Riewestahl.

“We are in the building dealing with people who have COVID on a daily basis,” Riewestahl said.

If those one-time bonuses are eventually approved, workers must still be employed by the Sheriff’s Office to qualify for payment. To receive the full bonus, employees must have been with the Sheriff’s Office before March 12, 2020. To receive 75% of the bonus, workers must have started between March 13, 2020 and March 11, 2021. To receive 50% of the bonus, employees must have started work after March 12, 2021.

The next county Judiciary and Law Enforcement Committee meeting is scheduled for Oct. 27.