Winnebago County Jail nearing capacity

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By Christina Basken

Sheriff John Matz said the Winnebago County Jail is reaching its maximum capacity of 355 inmates, and he is now talking about either expanding the facility or shipping inmates to other parts of the state.

In October 2016, the jail held 285 inmates on a peak day, but a year later that number had skyrocketed to 353, according to a study by consultants Kimmie & Associates Inc.

“People were in jail for the same reasons—we just had more people committing those crimes,” Matz said.

“The drug trade has increased significantly. We’ve seen it with our heroin overdoses. We have seen it with now, meth, which has made a pretty large comeback,” Matz said. “If we could control the drug use, there’s a lot of associated crimes that go along with that, like burglary and thefts to support their habits, then we could make a difference.” 

An inmate worker collects litter outside the Winnebago County Jail.

While the jail has stayed below its theoretical capacity, overcrowding is already raising operational and safety concerns.

According to Matz, the jail functions best at or below 320 inmates because that allows jail staff to segregate inmates according to a classification system. 

 “So we have sentenced inmates with other sentenced inmates, we have vulnerable inmates with other vulnerable inmates and we have people that we keep apart that are associated with the same crime or same gangs,” Matz said. “If we are at or below 320, we can put people in the right places. If we get above that 320, then sometimes we have to mix people that we otherwise wouldn’t.”

The consultant had projected that things would be worse than they are already, forecasting a peak inmate population of 411 this year.

“So far, we’ve done a good job of keeping the count below 411,” Matz said. “A lot of that is because of alternative incarceration programs that we have and the district attorney has, and the courts work with us. But there will come a time when we’ll have to build onto the facility or ship out to another county.”

Both solutions are very expensive, Matz said, and his department is trying to figure out the best way to approach the problem.

“The cost of building is expensive, but the cost of shipping out is also very expensive,” Matz said. “It’s $52 a day for every inmate we ship out, so it doesn’t take long to start adding up to some astronomical numbers.”

Matz said shipping inmates out isn’t easy because there are many associated problems.

“There are certain inmates that we can’t ship because they have behavioral problems, mental health problems or medical problems, and other jails won’t take them. So it really limits the people you can send,” Matz said.

Matz also said that the Winnebago County Jail isn’t the only jail in the area reaching its capacity.

“Right now, Manitowoc County and Brown County are looking for jail space, so everyone is running into the same kind of crunch that we are,” Matz said. “We may end up going to the other side of the state, and that’s happened before when we’ve had to ship before we built this facility.”

There are also a lot of extra costs involved with shipping inmates to other facilities, according to Matz. “So now you have all that transport time, and all that officer involved time with transports,” Matz said.

Inmates may be in the jail for more than a year awaiting trial. “Every time they have a court appearance we have to bring them back. Every time that they have a medical appointment, we have to bring them back,” Matz said.  “So if we’re shipping to Marathon County, now we’re talking about a lot of labor costs as well.”

Matz said that the next step would be to compare this year’s inmate population to the previous year’s and to ask Kimmie to come up with options.

If a decision is made to enlarge the jail, it will be two years before inmates could start moving into the expanded area, Matz said. In the meantime, inmates would likely have to be placed elsewhere.

 “So I would think that we will have a decision on this matter by mid- to late next year of what we’ll decide to do,” Matz said.  

Photos by Christina Basken. Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

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