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Inside Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail: bound for improvements, but not expanded capacity

Published: May. 25, 2022 at 10:50 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Jail has gone decades without any major improvements. Now, the jurisdictions that send people to that facility are being asked to set money aside for a new project.

In the coming months, Charlottesville, as well as Albemarle and Nelson Counties, will have to decide if they will make a serious investment into an overhaul of the jail. Col. Martin Kumer, the jail’s superintendent, says it’s desperately needed.

“This is pretty typical of what you’d see in a corrections facility in 1975,” Kumer said while taking NBC29 on a tour of the jail. He was pointing to small cells with chipped floors, one small toilet, bunk-bed frames, and walls that echoed the words he spoke.

What may have been typical nearly five decades ago when the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail was built is in some cases still the reality for people in 2022.

“It’s places like this that the mentally ill who can’t otherwise get released are housed sometimes,” Kumer said.

A projected $49 million demolition, renovation, and construction of the jail would completely knock out the areas that have not been updated since 1975. It would update the toilets and showers, upgrade climate control and air quality, and improve outdoor recreation areas.

But there is something not on the list of changes.

We asked Kumer if the renovation would add more beds and house more inmates.

“No,” he said. “The answer’s no. An emphatic absolutely not. No.”

That point has been emphasized by many involved in the project, from Kumer to prosecutors in the area.

“If we can hold the line with the number of beds that we have, and keep the community safe -- which I think we can -- that’s optimal,” said Joe Platania, Charlottesville’s Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Instead, chunks of the money will be going toward qualities Platania hopes will reduce recidivism. Things like classrooms, mental health resources, and trauma-informed design -- meaning more natural sunlight and better sound quality.

“I think we need a space that equips them to do all that, because at the end of the day, if they don’t come back in to the criminal justice system, that’s ideal for everyone,” Platania said.

The last major renovation was done 22 years ago, a project that also expanded the jail’s capacity by 120.

But even when walking through the “2000s″ area, Kumer said “if this were built today”, there would be changes.

Those areas would not get demolished, but would get upgraded. Parts of them are not ADA compliant, including showers with a curb at the entrance and toilets that have been temporarily equipped with a metal railing.

Kumer added that there are elements of the area that keep inmates and staff in a mental prison.

“You hear my voice again? How it echoes?” he asked. “Imagine 60 people in here all talking at the same time, two TVs going, an officer and a radio going, and like that from about 6 a.m. to about 10:00 at night. It can really play with your mind.”

The project will be paid for by four entities. One quarter will be requested from the state. The other three quarters will be split between Charlottesville, Albemarle, and Nelson -- a formula based on where the inmates are from.

It seems to have support, including from Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook.

“This would give us the ability to work, basically to take things away from the purely punitive model towards -- more nearly towards -- the rehabilitation model,” Snook said during a March City Council meeting.

Unlike projects of the past, Kumer and Platania want this one to be different -- spending more money to ensure fewer inmates come through the ACRJ doors.

“They’re still human beings, despite what you may think that they’ve done,” Kumer said. “They’re still human beings. They need to be treated humanely. They need to walk out of here healthier than they walked in here. Mentally, physically, emotionally. They need to walk out of here less likely to commit crimes.”

Kumer said another crucial element of the project is improving visitation, both in-person and virtual. He said keeping those family relationships can also help offenders stay out of jail once they are released.

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