DECATUR — Consultants privately paid for by new Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett are expected to finish evaluating the county jail next week, the first step in potential upgrades for which Buffett said he is willing to spend more than a million dollars within the next year.
The four consultants will look at everything from the jail’s policies, mental and medical health protocol and its technological systems and programs. Buffett paid for their services through in-kind donations from his Howard G. Buffett Foundation totaling $236,000, accepted last month by the Macon County Board. Buffett, who was appointed sheriff less than two months ago, said Tuesday that he expects the overall cost for consultants to exceed $300,000, and he would not be surprised if his foundation spent at least $1.5 million on consultants and jail upgrades.
“I have a unique opportunity to provide a benefit to the taxpayers and the county, and the jail is our highest liability,” Buffett said in a phone interview.
The jail was inspected earlier this year by the Illinois Department of Corrections, which found that it complied with state standards for how jails must be maintained. Buffett said he was glad the June 26 inspection did not note any issues, but his goal was to make the Macon County Jail more than merely compliant.
He said he hoped to implement the consultants' recommendations by spring and finish them before a new sheriff is elected in November.
“This is an opportunity to get the jail to the best possible level it can be at,” he said. “Just passing doesn’t mean that you cannot do better. I want us to do better. I want us to be proud of our jail.”
Buffett and Lt. Jonathan Butts both said the hiring of consultants and jail upgrades had nothing to do with an ongoing lawsuit that alleges neglect in the death of an inmate who died as a result of complications from diabetes.
The lawsuit, filed last summer in U.S. District Court, argues that the Macon County Sheriff's Office, Decatur Memorial Hospital and individual medical personnel and correctional officers ignored a diabetic emergency of 35-year-old Decatur man Michael A. Carter, who died in the jail on July 18, 2015.
The plaintiff in the case is Felita McGee, the administrator of Carter's estate, who is seeking more than $50 million for actual damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and other costs. The case is set for trial in 2019.
Butts said the sole purpose of the consultants was to bring in a fresh perspective on how to improve jail operations.
“With Sheriff Buffett coming in, the office has a great opportunity to look at the overall operations of the sheriff’s office and the corrections division,” Butts said. “We’re just trying to get some good feedback from professionals who do this for a living.”
The consultants' reports are expected to be completed before the end of the year. The Herald & Review has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain a copy of the contracts between the sheriff's office and the consultants.
The point person for the consultations is Gary Raney, the former sheriff of Ada County, Idaho, who has a private consulting business and also consults for the U.S. Department of Justice. He has previously done work with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Nebraska Department of Corrections, according to his website.
Buffett said he first spoke to Raney shortly before becoming sheriff, and Raney spent several days in mid-September touring the jail and noting areas he saw as places for improvement. After talking with Raney, Buffett said it became clear that specialized experts would need to be brought in, and Raney later coordinated various specialized consultants coming to Decatur over several weeks in October and early November.
Raney could not immediately be reached for comment.
Recommendations from Raney have already led the Buffett Foundation to pay $7,966 for three new medical beds and two restraint chairs, which was approved by the Macon County board at its October meeting.
This is the first major projected undertaken by Buffett, 62, since was sworn in as sheriff Sept. 15 after Schneider announced his resignation, citing stress and health reasons. He had volunteered as an unpaid auxiliary deputy sheriff for the department for five years, and the sheriff’s office said in September that Buffett had completed 3,300 hours of patrol training.
Schneider said he appointed Buffett because he did not want to create an unfair advantage for any of the three sheriff's lieutenants — Butts, Lt. Tony Brown and Lt. Jim Root — who have announced that they plan to run for the office in the November 2018 election.
The son of multibillionaire investor Warren Buffett, Howard Buffett came to Decatur in the 1990s to work for Archer Daniels Midland Co. His foundation has donated millions of dollars to Decatur-area projects, including to the sheriff’s office, and has continued to make donations since he became sheriff. His most recent contributions include $4.2 million for a new Central Illinois Regional Dispatch Center.
The changes also come after renovations to the jail in recent years by the Decatur Public Building Commission, an agency that owns all county facilities and charges rent. Upgrades have included new high-definition video cameras and digital recording systems, new locks and additional exterior windows to allow more natural light in the female dorms.
"I want to look at every option that will improve this jail," Buffett said. "For me, it’s like a one-time shot. While I’m here, I’m learning all this stuff. And as I learn it, I can find out what I can do to help."