Tuesday, June 10, 2014

TOP STORY >> Crowding problem in county jails

Leader senior staff writer

As always, the state Correction Department is full up and about 2,700 of its inmates are backed up in county jails, awaiting transfer.

A couple of them have been awaiting transfer from the Lonoke County Detention Center for more than a year, according to Sheriff John Staley.

Staley, Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay and White County Sheriff Ricky Shourd support the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association in its call for consideration during a special session of the legislature this summer.

If Gov. Mike Beebe calls a special session, Arkansas sheriffs say it is imperative for the state inmate crisis to be added to his call.

“This is a dire situation in our county jails and in our communities across the state,” said Ronnie Baldwin, executive director of the sheriffs’ association.

Local jails are overcrowded with state inmates, and the state doesn’t pay full freight for the beds it uses, the sheriffs say.

The Pulaski County Detention Center, which houses inmates for Little Rock, North Little Rock, Jacksonville and Sherwood, has just begun receiving nonviolent inmates again for the first time since April 29, according to Sheriff Doc Holladay.

While Pulaski County has beds for 1,370 inmates, it is funded and staffed for only 1,210, Holladay said Tuesday.

It had 1,300 inmates when it stopped accepting inmates, he noted. “We have another 160 beds not funded, and I don’t anticipate they’ll be funded this year.”

More prisoners take more jailers, more food and more medical services.

Overcrowding at the Pulaski County jail is about as old as the jail itself. In 1981, to relieve overcrowding, Sheriff Tommy Robinson took some inmates awaiting space in prison to the state Correction Department in Pine Bluff.

When the prison refused them, Robinson chained the inmates to the front gate and left. He ordered deputies to shoot state troopers if they dared to try returning the prisoners to the county.

Even then, it was an old problem. In 1858, the Arkansas Gazette reported that “The present jail of Pulaski County is too small for the comfortable keeping of the prisoners who have to be confined in it and too old and worn out for their safe keeping.”

This is according to a paper by the UALR History Department’s Raymond D. Screws.

Lonoke County’s new detention center opened in 2010, according to Sgt. Jim Kulesa, the public information officer.

The jail’s capacity when opened was 138, according to Staley. “When I took office, we re-evaluated and added some beds in the open pods to expand our current capacity to 150 beds. We are usually at or exceeding capacity. Current count as of today is 163, with 49 committed to the Arkansas Correction Department, 10 held for parole hearings and 31 being held for the federal authorities.

“If the state would take its prisoners, that would open 50 to 70 beds,” he said.

In White County, which can usually accommodate 290 to 300 prisoners, is averaging that. But an expansion to 40 or 55 additional beds is planned by August 2015, according to Chief Deputy Phillip Miller.

Miller said that, when the classification demographics are just right, the jail can handle 330. But segregating by gender and also by those charged or convicted of more serious crimes keeps the numbers down.

In Pulaski County, at any given time, convicted inmates awaiting room in the state Correction Department or awaiting parole revocation hearings account for as much as a quarter of the population.

Holladay said about 2,700 state prisoners are backed up in county jails around the state, and the sheriffs would like to see that capped at 1,600.

Also, the state pays the counties $28 a day for housing inmates, but a legislative audit determined it costs those jails $45 a day to house an inmate.

“Most counties are losing money” Holladay said.

The Public Safety Improvement Act, Act 570 of 2011 — part of Gov. Beebe’s agenda — was intended to reduce recidivism, hold offenders accountable and contain correctional costs. It went into effect in July of that year. The mandatory sentencing was changed with Act 570.

Holladay said it began to reduce prison and jail populations in the state until Darrell Dennis allegedly robbed and killed a teenager two days after he was released on parole.

The sheriff said that put the brakes on paroles and jail populations began climbing again.

Overcrowding first touches medical, food and overtime budgets, Holladay said. “We have to have adequate staff to manage growth and population. When you budget for 1,210, and you have 1,300, that results in stress on staff and conflict for inmates and staff.

“A year ago, I would have said I had 70 percent pretrial, nonviolent felons. Now, only accepting violent felons, I have 70 percent violent felons. As the threat of violence escalates, it creates a dilemma.”

Staley said, “The problem with a full facility is multifaceted. First, it causes low level, nonviolent felons to be released and the ability to hold misdemeanors is almost nonexistent. It causes tense relations with courts due to our inability to hold civil commitments such as child support violators. It also causes tension between agencies that have misdemeanor commitments. The sheriff’s office detention center is full of newly arrested felonies and over one third are state-committed inmates.”

Staley said his jail must hold 30 federal inmates to fund its operations. This is how the quorum court, prior to his time, chose to help fund the operations. “This also causes stress on the jail staff due to the overcrowding.”

Staley’s current budget is $1.5 million, and this includes $35,000 for medicines and $50,000 for other medical costs.

The sheriff continued, “It is a public-safety issue and causes undue stress on the county budgets and citizens...We catch the criminals, take them to court, get them convicted, and they are in the county jail during this time. Once the suspect is convicted, they become state inmates and should be transferred to a state prison in a timely manner. This is not happening.”

As far as staffing, the Lonoke County Detention Center now manages as many as 170 prisoners with the same number of jailers it had when the population was only 90, Staley added.