Local government

Rescue Act funds new renovations at Malheur County Jail

VALE – The Malheur County Jail has come far from the original two-cell jailhouse built in 1887. The Malheur County Sheriff’s Office is using $229,096 in federal funding to modernize the current jail. 

The funding is part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and will be used for long overdue renovations and updates, according to Sheriff Brian Wolfe and Jail Commander Lt. Rachel Reyna. 

Since its construction in 1996, the Malheur County Jail has never undergone major renovations until now. By coordinating with the county facilities maintenance adviser, Reyna and Wolfe prioritized renovations that would minimize future maintenance, modernize outdated features and provides more safety for inmates. 

These updates include remodeling the booking area, which needs new counters, seating, and space for inmate processing. Currently, there is paint peeling off the countertops and drawers, while the computers fit awkwardly in a space designed before desktop computer monitors. 

The jail will also be updating its filing system, allocating more room for the hard copy records that county corrections facilities are required to keep. Right now, the jail’s offices don’t have a dedicated file space, a new system “has more room to be more organized” said Reyna. 

The largest portion of the federal funding is going to renovations of shower blocks and dressing areas. Of the 13 shower blocks that are going to be renovated, all have cracked tiles, aging sinks, and fading mirrors. 

The shower blocks also have shower curtains instead of shower doors, something that needs to be updated to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. These regulations are intended to protect inmates and provide privacy and security. 

The renovations will involve ripping out these shower blocks individually and replacing them with newer, safer ones. According to Reyna, renovating 13 shower blocks is the most expensive and time-consuming part of the jail upgrade. 

Earlier this year the jail installed a new control board that manages the operations, an update from the old analog board that was installed during construction the 1990s. Wolfe said the old system needed replacement because it was difficult or impossible to find replacement parts. 

“In this jail where we have people 24/7. We can’t have things that are malfunctioning. We don’t want a door that’s open so people can walk out of here. People wouldn’t like that,” said Wolfe. 

The control board isn’t the only change to the county jail over the years. Since the original jailhouse was built in 1887 – for $5,000 paid in gold coins – the inmate capacity has grown significantly. The jail that was replaced in 1996 could only house 26 inmates. The current facility can hold 104.

With future funding, the jail hopes to expand the number of female cell blocks beyond the two current ones. Wolfe said this stems from the changing demographics of the incarcerated population. 

When the jail was built, only 10% of the space was needed for women. Now that number is closer to 30%. This will require rearranging the assignment of cell blocks and areas designated for men and women, Wolfe said. 

The old booking area at the Malheur County jail will be replaced with a newer, renovated processing space for inmates. July 22, 2022. (The Enterprise/MAC LARSEN)

Wolfe also plans to replace two or three patrol vehicles as well.

“We have a few more cars with higher miles because we’ve been fully staffed on patrol for the past few years,” said Undersheriff Travis Johnson. “We have a big county.” 

Normally, law enforcement fleets rotate vehicles out after 100,000 miles. Because of the size of Malheur County, the sheriff’s office holds onto patrol vehicles until they hit 200,000 miles.

A grated window in the dressing room for a shower block at the Malheur County Jail. These showers will be gutted to make way for new renovations to the 26 year old facility. July 22, 2022. (The Enterprise/MAC LARSEN)