Is the New, Larger Wayne County Jail Complex Justifiable? 

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On August 2, Wayne County voters approved the renewal of the jail millage tax, supporting a 10-year investment in the new Wayne County Criminal Justice Center. As the new jail complex is still undergoing construction near I-75, the city’s recent criminal justice system reforms are making headway toward dramatically reducing incarceration rates.  

In July, the 36th District Court reached a settlement after a 2019 lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union-Michigan (ACLU) and co-counsel organizations to limit the use of cash bail. The court agreed to release folks without cash bail on personal recognizance for anyone under the 200 percent poverty line and provide every defendant an attorney at arraignment.  

Of those considered indigent, a disproportionately higher number are African Americans. 

The Michigan Chronicle spoke to Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan, on the new jail complex and the historical impact of incarceration on communities of color.  

“Historically, from the origins of the country, incarceration has been really tailored to maintain control of certain populations, specifically African American descendent populations and indigenous people,” said Fancher. “That was the objective from the beginning because they were the communities perceived to be those which would destabilize everything that was going with respect to the development of this country, what it was trying to do.” 

Today, the racial disparity of those most system-impacted still weighs heavily on the Black community.  

According to a 2020 study by Vera Institute on Wayne County jails, “While Black people are more than 1.7 times more likely to be booked into the jail from the 36th District Court, which serves Detroit, they are 5.2 times more likely to be booked into the jail from the other courts in the country.” 

The 36th District Court’s step toward equitable reform is intended to address the low-income disparity of defendants that are overwhelming impacted by the burden of cash bail. Ninety percent of those held at the Wayne County jails are held as pre-trial detention due to the inability to pay bond as low as $200.   

The recent voter jail millage tax renewal means funding is extended another 10 years toward jail facilities, juvenile incarceration or detention facilities, and alternative adult penalty options.  

The new jail complex site will include over 1 million square-feet of space for five buildings—the replacement courthouse for the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice downtown, the adult jail, an administrative building, a juvenile detention center, and a utilities building.  

The site will have the capacity of more than 2,000 beds at the adult jail and a 160-bed juvenile center. The current capacity at the three divisions of Wayne County jails shows the jail population is between 1,600 and 1,700 and the number has decreased over the past decade.  

As reforms work toward mitigating the systemic practice of incarceration, what does this mean for the larger jail complex and community impact?  

 “I think that Detroit is in something of a quandary because of the absence of a vision for where all of this needs to go,” said Fancher. 

 “I think that you have individual officials who have an agenda which is driven by the notion to be tough on crime, and the way that I’m tough on crime is by rounding up lots of people or locking them away for a long time. And then you have individuals who are responsible for the bail reform at the 36th District Court who have an appreciation for the destructive impact of locking people up before there’s any type of determination of their guilt or innocence.” 

In 2018, the Wayne County Commission approved an agreement with Rock Ventures to build a new $533 million jail complex, replacing the long-stalled “fail jail” on Gratiot Ave.  

Wayne County Commissioner Alisha Bell said the new jail complex is going to be a state-of-the-art facility designed for better efficiency and safety of the staff and people incarcerated. 

“We just had a tour last week, as a matter of fact,” said Bell, “and it’s coming along nicely.  We have an open date of next year.” 

Inspired by the larger jail in Indianapolis, Ind., construction company Barton Marlow is building more of an open-concept facility, much like the pod-layout design found in Wayne County Division 3 jail located in Hamtramck. 

“So, we walk through last week,” said Bell, “And we go into each pod and each pod has a rec area with a half-court basketball area, they have fresh air and fresh light that comes through there. Then there is a common area and then there is the area where they have the actual cells themselves. Each pod would have about 40 people and so up to maybe two in a cell.” 

When asked how this new jail complex will be more efficient, Commissioner Bell said, “Well, everyone will be right there together, the prosecutors, the judges in the correctional institution, the juvenile detention will be there. I think this will be a good change, even with better rooms for the jurors and separate elevators. In Frank Murphy they have families of both the victim and the defendant on the same elevators.” 

Additionally, Commissioner Bell said the new jail will provide similar “enhanced services” including haircuts and braiding for the men and women, the Fresh Start program for those involved in prostitution, and a partnership program with Goodwill to provide education opportunities. Also, food will be made in the same space, whereas now the food is made at Division 3 and delivered to the other facilities.” 

“The facility will be better in replacing the aging facilities we have now, especially Division 1 and 2,” said Bell. “The platform design in the pods for the deputies will be better to ensure safety for the guards and inmates, with cameras everywhere. The bigger space and more lighting will put people in a better mood.” 

Advocates Call for ‘Viable Alternatives’ to Incarceration 

The Detroit Justice Center (DJC) and other organizations have been staunch critics over the years of the plans for the new jail, pushing against a punitive prison system toward restorative justice. 

Angel McKissic is the program manager in the Just Cities Lab, a project of DJC to build out restorative justice and empower communities to reimagine conflict-resolution models.  

“Restorative justice is a more humane way to think about harm and conflict in a way that considers the person who did the harm and considers the person who has harmed and what would they really need so it’s sort of healing and to reconcile with themselves and each other in the community,” said McKissic. 

McKissic is also founder and coordinator of the Metro Detroit Restorative Justice Network. She said Detroit residents don’t often know of other alternatives to traditional policing and incarceration.  

DJC is currently conducting a long-form survey of 200 residents to assess the community’s thoughts on public safety and accountability. 

“In a city like Detroit, where there is almost zero investment in alternatives to police, how do you expect people to know any other way? [In the survey] we’re asking people would you use alternatives to the police like a mental health crisis unit…a lot of people say unlikely because they don’t trust new stuff,” said McKissic.  

“There’s a lack of imagination and I don’t blame that on individuals. I do blame it on a systemic issue, we’ve never realized anything viable as an alternative. But, when you break down what the restorative practice looks like, accountability with agency to each person involved, they say yes. So, when people say they want more police, more jails, I think that’s a misinterpretation. They want to be heard and don’t keep perpetuating a system of more harm.” 



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