We’ve always suspected that the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first draft for the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center and Jail.
God knows, the imposing hulk dominating a critical city block in downtown Memphis has been the physical embodiment since 1981 for the public sector’s lack of regard for architectural quality.
From its first days, the Justice Center has been the antithesis of the welcome mat symbolized by the riverfront. If the riverfront is downtown’s warm welcome, the Justice Center is the cold water in its face.
The Lure Of Newness
In recent weeks, Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell has been doing the political equivalent of pushing a correctional boulder up the hill with his advocacy of a new jail estimated to cost roughly a half a billion dollars. The Shelby County Board of Commissioners should have been expected to push back, and many did, because they have been consumed in the past six years by the need to get control of the county’s crippling debt. A new jail alone would increase that debt by about 25 percent.
The option to a new building is a $180 million renovation of the present jail, but from where we sit, that’s a poor option, because that facility has clearly outlived its usefulness. For 27 years, the jail has been county government’s money pit, chewing up tax dollars from the inefficiencies inherent in its poorly designed architecture.
Almost immediately after the ribbon was cut to open it, the building technology that was supposedly state-of-the-art went on the blink. Of course, state-of-the-art back then meant a system of pneumatic tubes that always operated on their own schedule.
Meanwhile, flaws in the design were obvious from the first staffing chart, as significantly more jailers were needed to manage the labor-intensive design. Unfortunately, the architectural firm for the center was chosen more for its political connections than for its previous experience so the jail was in essence its on-the-job training in jail design.
In retrospect, it’s surprising that it took this long for the building’s obsolescence to force calls for a new jail. Shelby County Government spent $250,000 for a consultant’s report on the crowded jail, and it makes a convincing case for change. It suggested that savings in manpower and more efficient operations would offset the costs for a new jail.
Hopefully, the commissioners will resist the siren’s call to put band-aids on a building that has hemorrhaged money for way too long. And if it makes the right call, we hope that its second vote will be to blow up this architectural monstrosity and remove it from downtown once and for all (unless Bass Pro Shop needs an outlet mall).
We’ve been told by many researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that it’s difficult to make a decision to come to Memphis to work, because of the shallow job market, lack of a “real” downtown, the absence of a reliable, modern public transit system, and the crime rate. However, the present location of the Justice Center is an obstacle that the internationally famous hospital must regularly clear, because it loudly sends a message that this is one unsafe place to live and work.
As one person put it: “I hadn’t heard a lot of good things about Memphis before I came here, and most of my friends couldn’t believe I was considering a job here. But when I was driven to the hospital and drove by that massive jail with its razor wire, I sure thought they were right. I figured that I was being asked to work in a terribly dangerous part of the city.”
In the end, that particular researcher did in fact accept a job at St. Jude, but others at the hospital say that the dominating presence of the jail does nothing to help in the successful recruitment of doctors who can work anywhere in the world.
Out Of Sight
So, here’s hoping that when and if the commissioners vote for a more efficient, more humane facility, it’s moved from such a prominent place where its fortress façade won’t be such an eyesore to a major entry point to downtown.
It’s always been curious to us that the parking lot for the jail is sitting next to a building filled with hundreds of law enforcement officers and jailers, and yet, it’s somehow necessary to put up a fence topped with razor wire to protect these officers’ vehicles.
Sometimes, it seems that any time the jail has a chance to blend into downtown and mitigate its impact, it has done just the opposite. For example, when the expansion to the jail was approved about a decade ago, Shelby County Government promised to landscape its frontage on Poplar, but instead, it simply ignored its agreement with the Center City Commission and slapped up its razor wired fence.
Of course, more troubling than the cost of a new jail is the need for it. It seems to guarantee that Shelby County Government will continue to run a prison system that is larger than more than a dozen state systems. A new jail would increase the number of beds in the jail alone to about 4,000.