Replacement for aging Jessup detention center sought

County officials are mulling plans to replace the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup, a 1980s building that detention center director Jack Kavanagh says is “falling apart.&#8221
County officials are mulling plans to replace the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup, a 1980s building that detention center director Jack Kavanagh says is “falling apart.” (Howard County Times file)

As Howard County moves forward on a $139 million project to replace its aging courthouse, another multi-million dollar replacement project in the local justice system is on the horizon.

County officials are mulling plans to replace the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup, a 1980s building that detention center director Jack Kavanagh says is "falling apart." The suggestion departs from earlier plans to renovate the building, which houses pre-trial offenders and inmates sentenced up to 18 months.


"The walls might be solid, the floor might be solid, but everything else seems to be eroding," Kavanagh said.

The roof needs to be replaced, the plumbing system needs major repairs and tiles falling off the building's facade recently forced the center to close-off the jail yard. Officials are also concerned about security weaknesses with the control center, which relies on parts built in the 1980s that are no longer available, leaving staff to manually create switches for the center and search for failing door motors that maintain security.

As the litany of problems in the heavily used building balloons each year, officials say building a new center is necessary because renovations are too costly to address systemic problems. The county had previously suggested renovating the building, but now officials are convinced renovation isn't cost effective in the long run.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman is turning to the private sector to fund a $139 million courthouse to replace the current 174-year-old historic building in old Ellicott City, a relic of a bygone era struggling with limited space and security for more than two decades.

The failing door system convinced Kavanagh replacing the center was the only option.

Renovations of jails present unique challenges because maintaining security is a high priority as construction workers and contractors renovate the building. For example, contractors and equipment coming into the facility must be screened and monitored by designated security staff, a logistical dance that can lengthen the time needed to complete even the most basic of repairs, Kavanagh said.

"I was one of the last of our group to buy into this idea of a replacement," he said. "It wasn't until our door system stopped worked, that I bought into the idea that this is not going to get better, it's going to get worse."

Employees are also strapped for space, leaving staff to repurpose closets into offices.

The facility's medical unit has only two observation cells — leaving staff to jostle for space in case more inmates, especially those released from local hospitals, need attention and observation. Medical staff separate inmates using privacy screens in the small space, a configuration that risks invading inmates' privacy. The detention center also does not have enough space to separate juveniles charged as adults by sight and sound, a separation required by federal law.

Several expansions have been made to house a growing number of inmates in the building, which first opened in 1983 to house 108 inmates. An expansion in 1994 boosted capacity to 361 inmates.

Now, a burgeoning inmate population with mental health issues suggests a new facility needs to address new and growing needs. The capacity of the facility is 474 inmates. The number of inmates on psychotropic medications — an indication of mental health issues — jumped from 30 percent to around 40 percent over the last five years, according to detention center data. Officials also hope to build in more space for programming to help inmates transition into the real world.

An assessment by consulting firm L.R. Kimball suggested replacing the building late last year. The new jail would be built on land behind the current center that is already part of the department's footprint, allowing the current center to operate as the replacement is being built.

Cost estimates range from $49 million and $76 million.

Howard County faces a chronic shortage of affordable housing for people with psychiatric conditions, mental health advocates say.

Early discussions to replace the center come as Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman eyes the construction of a new courthouse on the Dorsey government complex in Columbia.

Construction costs of that project, which has been on the county's budget books for decades, are expected to top $139 million, most of which would be put up by the county. A private consortium of firms is expected to shoulder the remainder of the costs in a public private partnership called a P3.


Replacing the detention center is highly likely, but Kittleman expects an official recommendation at the end of this month. Based on early estimates, the new building could open by fiscal 2021.

The county executive's budget includes at least $3 million to invest in necessary renovations to keep the center limping along, said Holly Sun, the county's budget director.

"It's not very 'exciting' to talk about it and it's not the thing you want to run for county executive and say, hey, I built a detention center, vote for me. But it's something that we're absolutely working on," Kittleman said.

The Republican executive has not publicly indicated plans for re-election next year.