Tuesday, June 21, 2011

TOP STORY >> County jail hits a snag with JPs

Leader staff writer

The Lonoke County Quorum Court and the county sheriff have reached an impasse about opening the new jail: The sheriff won’t guarantee how many of the extra 40 or so beds in the new jail he will have available to rent to help pay the cost of operations, and the quorum court has tabled his request for the eight additional jailers he says he needs to hire and train before he can open up.

Contacted this week, Chief Deputy Dean White, who is over the financial end of running the jail, said the problem is that the quorum court wants a solid answer out of a fluid situation.

White said the sheriff can’t guarantee that he will always have 30 to 40 beds available to rent because there might be times when he needs some of them for county prisoners. However, the sheriff is aware that he needs to rent beds to help pay for the jail and intends to do so.

In the meantime, he needs to hire the additional jailers so they can be trained and ready when the jail opens. Every time the quorum court tables the request for the jailers, the opening of the jail is pushed back.

“Somebody’s going to have to make a good-faith leap,” White said.

The current jail is built to house 60 prisoners. Tuesday, there were 84, White said.

The new jail has a total of 138 beds of which two are holding cells not intended for full-time occupancy unless the other 136 are full.

White said the sheriff would like to keep 96 beds for county prisoners and rent 30 or more of the other beds but leave some in reserve in case he is ordered by the court to incarcerate more than 96.

A full jail is soon overcrowded, he said, because there is no way to know when one more bed might be needed.

White says he has been in contact with the state about leasing space to eight to 14 prisoners at $28 a day. If the jail houses 10 state prisoners, the revenue would be $102,000. But in addition to getting rent for the prisoners, the county also would get free labor, he said. Those prisoners, called Act 309 prisoners, with oversight by a jailer, would run the state-of-the-art commercial kitchen in the new jail.

That kitchen has a walk-in cooler and freezer that would allow him to purchase in bulk and save money on feeding prisoners, White said. Currently, it costs $5.80 a day to feed the prisoners but he thinks that cost would drop to $3.10 to $3.50 a day by buying in bulk.

Currently, the county jail buys ice for prisoners’ drinks at a cost of about $100 a week, but the new kitchen has an ice maker that will freeze 100 pounds of ice an hour. It also has a large convection oven for baking the bread and cookies the county now buys.

“We will probably save 10 percent to 25 percent just from the new kitchen but we won’t know until we get there,” he said.

Asked who would rent space, White said North Little Rock has called more than once asking to rent 16 to 18 beds.

“I’d be glad to let them have them but I’ve got to be open first,” he said.

Jacksonville, Sherwood and White County also are potential customers, he said. Asked why White County, which has a new jail, would need to rent space in Lonoke’s jail, White said that sometimes it is necessary to remove prisoners from people who know them. An example is David Derreberry, 37, of Greenbrier, who is charged with murder in the April shooting death of pawn-shop owner Billy Joe Pipkin, 61. Derreberry is being housed in the White County jail because White said it might not be safe to keep him in the Lonoke County jail.

The county has budgeted $900,000 to run the old jail and a study by the architect who designed the new one has projected the cost of running the new one at $1.3 million. White says he believes the new jail will be able to raise enough from renting beds to make up the difference but the quorum court needs to approve the additional cost of the jailers before he can prove it.