Old St. Joseph Co. Jail building to house secure courtrooms

Multimillion dollar plans are being carried out to renovate the building that--until 2001--served as the St. Joseph County Jail.

“We’re building four new criminal courtrooms and chambers for the judges for those courtrooms,” said Project Architect John Werntz, shortly after the St. Joseph County Commissioners agreed to award $1.8 million in contracts.

The overall budget for the project is $3.8 million. Future contracts will fill the building with furniture and technology.

Two thirds of the inmates now being held at the St. Joseph County Jail are simply there awaiting their next court appearance.

The old jail renovation project is about the safety of the rest of those passing through the courthouse—witnesses, jurors and court workers.

“I read the horror stories from Atlanta, Chicago, and Nebraska,” said St. Joseph Circuit Court Judge Michael Gotsch. “Those are the types of things that can happen if you don’t have these secure facilities.”

In 2005, in Atlanta, a suspect on trial for rape managed to escape. He murdered the judge, a court reporter, and a sheriff’s deputy.

When people in custody are brought to court in St. Joseph County, they travel the same halls and elevators as the general public—albeit with a police escort. Some feel the longstanding practice is a ticking time bomb.

“Someone is a juror, someone is a witness, someone is a victim, they don’t really want to be here necessarily but it’s our obligation to make sure they’re safe while they’re here,” said Judge Gotsch.

The former jail building is right next to the main courthouse and the county has already renovated eight holding cells in the basement.

The contracts awarded today will create four new courtrooms on the two floors above, dramatically decreasing the risks that transporting prisoners poses to the public.

“We have a secure prisoner elevator and then they can be transported up the elevator without crossing paths with the general public,” said John Werntz.

The contracts for the secure courtroom project were approved by the St. Joseph County Commissioners today by a vote of two to one.

“I’m for remodeling the old jail. I always have been, provided we do not create another entranceway, another entranceway will grow the construction cost and then increase fixed costs because now we have to hire manpower and equipment to operate that security entrance,” said Commissioner Dave Thomas, who voted no.

As it stands, the old jail facility would have its own entrance. Some feel that’s not necessary or cost effective.

Money for the project comes from the local option income tax.

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