Courthouse security tops need for new facility
Leaning against the wall just outside a Portage County court room, a witness in a sexual assault trial expressed anxiety: “I don’t want to screw up, I don’t want to say the wrong thing,” he said. As the words escaped his mouth, law enforcement tried to clear the hall to steer a prisoner wearing a bright orange jumpsuit with the black lettering “Portage County Inmate” on his back to the bathroom.
Other witnesses for the trial were mixed in with people waiting for the family court commissioner’s case in a small room at the end of the hall; dotted down the opposite direction, attorneys attempted to speak with clients or other attorneys about their cases along the edge of the corridor as others tried to pass.
Second in a series
A court case across from the trial included a man incarcerated for 39 days for alleged domestic violence against his now ex-wife. As the man left the court room, handcuffed and shackled and escorted by law enforcement, he smiled and called out, “Smile wife-y, I’ll be back.”
Because law enforcement couldn’t clear the hallway quick enough, at one point he bumped into a woman whose divorce case followed his.
It was Thursday. The busiest day in the Portage County courthouse is Monday.
“It’s a logistical and security nightmare,” Sheriff Mike Lukas said.
Safety and security is one of the largest factors involved in the decision to include a new courthouse in the proposed construction of a $78.5 million Government Center. Portage County residents will weigh in on whether the county should move forward with the concept during an advisory referendum on Nov. 8.
Government Center concept
The proposed center includes constructing a three-story, 270,000-square-foot building attached to the County Annex containing a two-pod jail to house a maximum of 200 inmates with room to grow if needed, four new courts and general county government offices.
The courthouse portion of the project is estimated to cost $23.2 million.
Also included in the plan is $360,500 for demolition of the 1039 Ellis St. building and razing the existing Law Enforcement Center for new parking at a little more than $1 million.
Repurposing the existing County-City Building also is on the list, but there are no specific dollars allocated to that project. The county has slated about $6 million for the building over a 10-year period through its Capital Improvement Plan, projects which are annually reviewed and included in the regular budget process.
What’s changed in the courts?
The Portage County-City Building was constructed in 1958, and at that time housed two courts, one for county court cases, which were misdemeanor charges, and one for a part-time circuit court judge who rotated between Portage and Wood counties to deal with more serious crimes.
By the 1960s, more felony-type crimes were being committed and by the 1980s, the state designated all judges as circuit court judges so cases could rotate within each county. About 10 years later, Portage County moved to the three circuit courts and one family court area it has today.
Population has more than doubled, with recorded population in 1950 at 34,858 people; in 1980 the population was 57,420.
In 2000, a year after the county first began studying its space needs in the current jail and courts, the population was 67,252. Two referenda since to construct new facilities have failed – about 70 percent to 30 percent in both cases.
Today, the county population is nearly 70,500.
With the influx of people, the rate and type of crimes committed increased as well, and now the ability to handle those crimes while protecting staff, the public, suspects, witnesses and jurors has outgrown the facility.
“We don’t make these concerns lightly,” District Attorney Louis Molepske Jr. said. “I don’t think people would be asking if it wasn’t at the point we need to do something. The time to act is now.”
Today, the courts and court support departments make up about 21,000 square feet, including the courtrooms, the family court commissioner area (a converted conference room), a small conference room, judges’ chambers, staff offices, clerk of courts, register in probate and district attorney’s office.
The Family Law Information Center is in an office along a short, narrow strip that darts off a main hallway; the only conference room – which can seat about six people –is beyond that office and also connects directly with the court security officers’ room.
Courtrooms, while exceeding state requirements for size, are not compliant with the American’s with Disabilities Act, not for the public or for jurors and witnesses – the county has received several complaints regarding this issue – and there are no handicapped accessible restrooms on the second floor where the courts are housed.
Currently, there is no separation for the judges, attorneys, prisoners, witnesses and jurors for breaks, so any could be in the restroom at the same time. It not only is a security issue, Molepske said, but also a perception concern.
The new courthouse would be nearly 2 1/2 times the current size at 52,000 square feet. It would include four full court rooms each with two attorney/client conference rooms and jury deliberation rooms that will be situated to also serve as general purpose conference rooms. The family court commissioner would occupy the fourth courtroom space.
A new jury assembly room would also double as a new County Board room.
Technology would be available in each of the courtrooms; currently, the prosecutors must share, which often is difficult in jury trial cases.
A larger district attorney’s office would have space to handle future assistant district attorneys. According to state statutes, Portage County handles enough cases that it could be eligible for two more assistant district attorneys (state calls for a ratio of one prosecutor per 10,000 and currently Portage County’s ratio is one per 18,000), but the state will not grant the request without room to house them, Molepske said.
In the new facility, there also would be a clear separation between inmates, staff and the public; inmates would go between the jail and courthouse through secured halls and elevators, which is required under state law today, according to John Cain, architect and principal with Venture Architects of Milwaukee, which has been working with the county since 1999.
Currently inmates must be walked across the street from the jail to the courthouse. Some, Lukas said, have fallen and broken their noses due to weather conditions and being shackled. Traffic during these times also is a concern, he said.
Security in the courthouse also is a “huge” issue, county staff and Cain said. More than 38,000 people are screened annually on the second floor of the County-City Building, where the courts are housed, according to 2015 statistics.
Nearly 500 knives and 120 other weapons including razors, firearms, pepper spray, multi-tools and ammunition were confiscated last year, and those are just from people who came through security check, which is not operating at all hours of the day.
Prisoners, public, jurors, witnesses and attorneys can be in full view and potential contact with each other at any given time, especially when there are multiple court trials occurring.
Add to that, juvenile hearings – and state law requires protection of and maintaining juveniles’ confidentiality. Officials attempt to abide by state law by transporting juveniles from the jail into the courthouse and immediately into an elevator to bring them to the second floor for court. That avoids public viewing on the first floor of the building, but once they reach the second floor, the juveniles have to walk down the corridor to the courtrooms.
Family court is tucked away at the far end of the main hall, and the space is the size of a small conference room. There is enough room between attorney/client tables for a person to slide through sideways, the testimony box is about eight feet from one of those tables, there is only one way in and one way out (for the court reporter, all family members, attorneys, clients, witnesses and the judge), and any witnesses are seated against a wall just steps from the judge and/or attorney/client tables.
Baker, who served as a guardian ad litem for child placement cases in the past, once sat between the attorneys and recommended a change of placement. The child’s grandmother, who was seated against the wall, was so outraged, she jumped up and lunged with arms outstretched at Baker. A court security officer, who had been requested just minutes before, grabbed the woman and dragged her out of the room.
In another instance, as a man and woman walked out of the “court,” the man separated papers in his hand and revealed two metal discs similar to throwing stars and started to hand them to the woman to give to their child. Security immediately confiscated the items.
“This is where people come where the cases are most personally debilitating,” Baker said. “This is where people are the most hostile … It’s not if something is going to happen, it’s when.”
The existing building also has been plagued by maintenance issues. At one point, “crime tape” cordoned off a bathroom on the second floor. A pipe had rusted through and every time a toilet flushed, water flowed down to the floors below.
“When you walk through the building, you see a very pretty building, we keep it maintained very well,” Facilities Manager Todd Neuenfeldt said. “You don’t see the pipes behind the wall are rotting away, the mechanicals have exceeded their life expectancy.”
Among other issues, in many offices, people on one side have space heaters while the other – if they are able to – have window air conditioners, and often both are running at the same time and in opposite seasons – the space heaters run in the summer because the air conditioning is too cold, for example.
The regulation of air flow is difficult to keep consistent throughout the building with remodeling that has been done over the years, so in some offices – like the Clerk of Courts – many vents in the ceiling have paper jammed in them to block the flow.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles looking at what makes up the proposed $78.5 million Government Center that goes to an advisory referendum Tuesday, Nov. 8, and the reasoning behind why Portage County leaders believe it to be the best option.