New Alpena County Jail offers modern security features for often-revolving cast of defendants
ALPENA — Workmen are busily putting finishing touches on the new Alpena County Jail.
The new, $11 million jail — built by a property tax increase — will house, on one side, a steady flow of people booked for minor infractions who will leave again within hours or days — some of them to return many times, according to jail officials.
On the other side, people accused of serious crimes — waiting for their court case or serving their time or possibly on their way to state prison — will pass the days in rooms where everything is bolted down and the doors lock at night.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a normal jail,” said Scott Gagnon, until recently administrator of the Alpena County Jail, offering a tour of the nearly complete building on a recent February afternoon. Gagnon left the county’s employ for a new job after the interview for this story.
Inside the big green building near the Alpena County Regional Airport on M-32, west of Alpena, most people won’t go beyond the lobby, where the public can add money to an inmate’s account, wait to be fingerprinted, or request a visit with an inmate.
On the building’s north side, a single corridor laid with carpet tiles in shades of gray is lined by simple rooms filled with office furniture donated by a police agency in Illinois.
In the building’s south end, where jail proper begins, officers from local police departments will pull into a drive-in entryway to safely drop off arrestees for booking.
From there, “it’s one of those chose-your-own-adventure-type things,” Gagnon said.
Few people are happy to be brought to jail, but most are compliant, Gagnon said. For those who aren’t, jail architects designed a cooldown room they call a “combat hold” — a bare room containing nothing but locking doors and a light.
“We’re not trying to encourage anyone to stay here any longer than they have to,” Gagnon said.
For those who choose a less violent adventure, a second doorway leads to an intake and processing area for filling out paperwork, emptying pockets, taking fingerprints, and smiling — or not — for a mugshot.
Most people arriving at the jail won’t get past the processing area, where a semicircle walkway wraps around a low-walled counter, all of it painted dim white.
Two-thirds of people booked in the Alpena County Jail come accused of misdemeanors, according to county data. Many are released without bond once they’ve been fingerprinted, while others are assigned a low bond amount and can pay it and get out within a few hours or days.
Only those who stay longer will get a look at the rest of the building.
A corrections officer sitting behind the low-walled counter could see into a room where newly booked inmates wait to see a judge — usually via a video screen — within 72 hours.
In other rooms, one 2-foot-wide ledge serves as a makeshift bed if anyone has to wait overnight. Several holding cells can house four people, sharing a tiny metal sink, a tiny metal toilet, and a tiny, shiny metal slab bolted to the wall to proxy as a mirror.
Every room has a window, far overhead and out of reach.
“Natural light is everything,” said Gagnon, passing into a hallway beyond the semicircle.
An on-site, full-time nurse will have access to the nurse’s station, with room for an exam table that could never have been squeezed into the county’s current jail on Johnson Street in Alpena.
Farther down the hall, two four-bunk rooms, separated from the rest of the jail, will offer eight low-level offenders the chance to feel productive as inmate workers, helping in the kitchen or with other assignments. There’s only room for two such workers in the current jail.
The kitchen gleams with state-of-the-art deep-freezers, ovens, and range hoods. It’s a knifeless kitchen, Gagnon said.
Another semicircle path — this one not quite so bright — curves past two-story rooms that don’t really qualify as cells.
Each not-really-a-cell space is taken up mostly by a day room, an open area with bolted-in-place tables and stools and a cabinet to hold games or cards.
Inmates don’t often argue about what channel to watch on the televisions high on the day room walls, Gagnon said, because they don’t want privileges taken away.
Adjacent to each day room are two or three small, lockable living quarters, just big enough for four bunked beds, a shower, and a tiny, wall-less bathroom.
More small living quarters are stacked on top of the first, accessible by a set of stairs with its feet in the day room.
Across the hall from the not-really-cells, on the inside of the semicircle, mirrored glass hides the dimmed room on the other side. There, corrections officers have a clear view of most cells and direct access to all of them.
A blinking, beeping computer screen in the control room displays a map of the entire building, every door marked and able to be unlocked by the click of a mouse.
Corrections officers won’t carry door keys, Gagnon said. They won’t need to. From the always-manned control center, an officer can open a door for inspection, turn on lights, turn off a television, or let a well-behaved inmate out of a cell and into a nearby recreation area.
Other inmate living spaces, in a dorm-style arrangement, will work well for inmates who can’t get along with others. In a small town where everyone seems to know everyone, that happens, Gagnon said.
Other, one-inmate rooms are reserved for the most dangerous inmates, on lockdown 23 hours a day.
If all goes well, the hundreds of people who earn a stay at the jail in any given year may come away the better for it, Gagnon said. Then again, those who have spent time inside the current jail’s cells — and now will pass time in the new ones — may get more than one chance to learn a lesson from being locked up.
“People just keep coming back to jail,” Gagnon said.