Officials hope a plan to close the Bulloch County Correctional Institute and use the building and employees to expand the Bulloch County Jail will be a winning move for all involved.
Bulloch County Sheriff Noel Brown, Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch and county commissioners believe the solution will reduce jail overcrowding, increase revenue and improve the process of booking in inmates.
According to the plan, the Correctional Institute, which currently houses state inmates, will close, instead being used to house low-risk county prisoners. The county will no longer house state inmates, but will be able to bring in more federal inmates at higher revenue, and BCCI employees will be retained.
“Since spring 2018, the Board of Commissioners and the sheriff began to examine the feasibility of transitioning the correctional institute that houses state inmates into a county detention center for initially 50-100 low-risk, low-security county inmates (currently) housed at the jail,” Couch said. “The sheriff has proposed that low-security inmates could be housed in the detention center who could continue to be used for inmate labor details or community service.”
The Bulloch County Jail was expanded several years ago under former sheriff Lynn Anderson, but as the county’s population boomed, so did the number of inmates. Before Anderson left office in 2016, overcrowding again had become a problem.
When Brown became sheriff in 2017, the jail was still cramped.
“A jail is pretty much at full capacity when it reaches 80 percent,” Brown said. “This is based on the fact that a sheriff must have ample space to move inmates around within the jail for security and safety purposes.”
Reasons for having to move inmates include “protective custody, contagious disease issues” and other factors, he said.
The Bulloch County Jail is at capacity at 466 inmates, and currently has 410 inmates – at around 90 percent capacity. Brown said in the past, the population has reached more than 450, and cots were used in dormitory common areas to accommodate the inmates. That was a security risk, he said.
“There would be no way to lock these inmates down should there be an emergency. To maintain a safe and orderly environment within the jail, we must be able to separate inmates who are rival gang members, co-defendants or have been involved in confrontations with each other. An overcrowded jail jeopardizes the safety of deputies, inmates and civilian employees.”
Couch also recalls previous overcrowding. “Lynn Anderson said during his term they were running out of space. They are bumping capacity now.”
Initially, Brown asked for two new jail pods, anticipating future growth. However, the cost of that would exceed the available Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds available for a jail expansion.
Brown estimated the cost of two new jail pods at “in excess of $15 million.” Couch, however, put the estimate at closer to “$18 to $20 million for two pods.” SPLOST funds available are $7 million, he said.
“Building the requested amount of units would substantially diminish the amount of SPLOST funds … available to the county and the cities for other purposes such as recreation, solid waste, public safety and other needs that have been traditionally funded,” he said. “Over the past several years, SPLOST revenue has been very static due to increasing tax exemptions passed by the state government and untaxed online sales. Converting the correctional institute into jail space would defer the need to construct additional housing units beyond what is needed. “
Realizing this, commissioners, Couch and Brown got together to form a plan that would provide the much-needed space, be within budget and solve a few other problems as well, Couch said.
Jail capacity isn’t the only issue of overcrowding, Brown said. Office space and storage rooms are needed as well.
“We worked with the county manager and Commission chairman to find a more affordable solution,” he said. “Our current plan to expand jail space essentially consists of three separate projects.”
The first is to use the BCCI building to hold sentenced misdemeanor and nonviolent inmates. “The BCCI was originally built to hold local prisoners but now only houses about 10 county inmates,” Brown said. “This has forced (the jail) to hold on average around 50 sentenced state court inmates, even though the primary responsibility is holding pre-trial inmates.”
The second part of the project is to renovate the current jail.
“The current evidence room will be moved to a new building, which will create space for the jail to expand. The current booking area will be remodeled,” he said.
The third phase will be to construct a new building, to be located where the current public works building is located, to house “medical services and intake operations.”
Public works, which is also currently cramped, will be placed in a new location, Couch said. That project is yet to be announced.
“I 100 percent agree we need to go into modifying space in the jail,” he said. “They have a very cramped administrative space.”
Plans include modifying the sally port and booking area and providing new space for administrative offices and an evidence room, he said.
Brown said the new building will hold “a new booking area, exam rooms and specialized holding cells.”
How it will work
Housing low-risk inmates in the current CI facility will enable Brown to hold “more violent, higher-risk inmates” in the actual jail. This would include federal inmates, which Couch said result in fees of more than $50 a day per inmate, as opposed to the $20 a day paid for housing state inmates. Transportation and medical costs for federal inmates are paid by the government, while those costs for state inmates are absorbed by the county, he said.
Eliminating state inmates and increasing the number of federal inmates housed will be a revenue boost for the county.
Current booking space is also inadequate, Brown said.
“Our current booking area is used to both intake new arrivals and for release operations. This is very inefficient and creates a constant bottleneck. The new building will house a new booking and intake area with a separate sally port. The existing booking area will be renovated and converted into a release station. We will have two separate points for entry and release, which will be much more efficient.”
A major benefit to the planned expansion is the medical facility, Brown said.
“The biggest issue facing all sheriffs in Georgia is the exponential increase in inmates with medical problems, drug addictions and mental health issues,” he said. “Our plans … will include cells for persons who are handicapped, require intensive medical observation, are suicidal or require detoxification. This will provide an area that focuses on inmates with these issues and this will decrease liability issues, which are inherent with the care and treatment of these prisoners.”
With the low-risk inmates (those sentenced for less serious misdemeanor crimes) being housed in the old CI building, it will enable them to perform work details that will in turn reduce their sentences, Brown said.
“These inmates would be used for low skill tasks such as picking up trash, cleaning and manual labor. For the most part they would not be used for operating heavy machinery, etc.”
Couch said the quality of state inmates has become such that there were few with enough skill to operate the machines anyway.
“There is a decade-long increasing trend of state inmates housed at county correctional institutes who tend to have fewer skills, poorer work habits and have higher security requirements, as higher-skilled, low security inmates were being transitioned into work-release centers or are being released from incarceration,” he said. “Increasing mandates on the use and treatment of state inmates has also impacted the effectiveness and efficiency of inmates used on work details. In all, this has reduced the availability and productivity of inmates on a daily basis, and the labor value has had diminishing returns to Bulloch County taxpayers.”
Thomas and Troup counties have closed their correctional institutes, and other counties in addition to Bulloch are considering similar actions, he said.
A Georgia law, Georgia Code 42-4-7 (11) allows a sheriff “authority to reduce the sentences of inmates who have been convicted of less serious offenses,” Brown said. “Inmates will be given the opportunity to receive these earned time allowances in exchange for community service and good behavior.”
This move will actually reduce costs, Couch said.
Though additional county personnel will be required to perform higher-skilled work such as road maintenance, building repair, and fleet maintenance, the county should experience higher productivity and lower costs over the long run.
“Meanwhile, the Correctional Institute kitchen could be privatized, thus providing inmate meals, and sheriff’s vehicles could be maintained at a county fleet facility without state inmates servicing them, both at a lower cost,” Couch said. “These cost savings would also allow the backfill of higher skilled staff needed for public works and building maintenance.”
Several employees of the current Bulloch County Correctional Institute contacted the Statesboro Herald, off the record, to express concern for their jobs after county officials broke the news of the BCCI plan earlier this summer in private meetings with the employees.
However, Couch said the county expects to keep the employees, either by integrating them into the sheriff’s office and jail or elsewhere in the county.
He said he “was given guidance that our goal was to retain or place 100 percent of the remaining correctional institute personnel, and that this transition would take until June 30, 2019 to put in place.
“The Sheriff has expressed a willingness to retain existing detention officers at the Correctional Institute into his department. Meanwhile, placement for non-detention officers is being examined for transfer into other county departments who need matching skill sets,” he said.
Brown said having some of the employees would benefit his operation.
“The majority of the BCCI employees are certified correctional officers,” he said. “They would certainly be useful in providing personnel for the jail expansion. In fact, in the past we have recruited former correctional officers to fill open positions in our jail.”
A staffing plan is in the works that would provide both adequate staff for the expansion and transition as well as integrate BCCI employees into the jail staff, he said. “It is important that we realize there will have to be additional personnel to provide adequate security for our present jail operations, the transitioned BCCI and the new medical/intake building.
“The specialized holding areas in the medical section will require intensive and frequent, in-person checks of these inmates, which will in turn require a much higher ratio of staff to inmates than the general population areas,” he said
Bulloch County Commission Chairman Roy Thompson said he is pleased with the plan.
“We are trying to save taxpayers money, and we could not afford to build two new jail pods,” he said. “After much study, we determined closing the CI would be the most economical way to reach the end goals” of the sheriff and county.
Final details remain to be determined, Couch said. “The final logistics of this transition with firmer financial estimates are expected to be established (this fall), after consultations with the sheriff’s department concludes.”
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.