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Sheriff: Jail overcrowding is urgent
County says cost too high to build additions
Brown Couch
Bulloch County Sheriff Noel Brown, left, and Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch

While Bulloch County commissioners search for ways to fill community needs without raising taxes, Bulloch County Sheriff Noel Brown faces the challenges of an increasingly overcrowded jail.

Brown has requested from the county to construct one or two new jail pods, citing an urgent need. He said the jail stays near capacity and he has had to make adjustments to open up more cell space for local inmates.

However, there are not enough available Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds to build new jail housing pods at this time, said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch. To build the new additions could cost between $15 million and $24 million, and that would mean raising taxes significantly to fund loan payments on that amount, he said. 

A proposal to use the Bulloch County Correctional Institute facility to house low-security local inmates has not been successful, as problems arose with the idea of allowing these inmates to work off part of their sentences.  Couch said the county offered Brown 

40 beds at first as a trial run, but Brown said he could not provide that many eligible inmates. Closing the Correctional Institute to state prisoners would eliminate a work source, and if local inmates could not fill the gap, other problems surface, he said.

While county leaders consider the jail overcrowding issue, the jail is still nearly full. At a recent public event, Brown told listeners that the 466-bed jail housed 396 inmates that particular day.

"It's not that I want to raise taxes. I most certainly do not," he said.  But "either they use it to house state prisoners and provide inmate labor, or they can use it to house offenders who have committed crimes in Bulloch County."

The sheriff and commissioners have each found flaws in the proposed plan, disagreeing on staffing rates and benefits issues if the sheriff absorbed the Correctional Institute.

Brown said he recognizes the county's view but he has to look after his own duties as sheriff.

"I understand the logic of using inmate labor to save money. But please remember that the first duty of government is to provide safety and security for our citizens."

No more federal inmates

In an effort to create more room for local inmates, Brown stopped housing federal inmates, even though taking in federal inmates brought the county an income of $50 a day for each prisoner.  

"I asked the U.S. Marshals Office to remove their prisoners because we were rapidly becoming overcrowded," he said. "I also was faced with the choice of shipping some of our inmates out to other jails and having to pay them per diem to hold them. It was either that or just start releasing prisoners."

He agrees that ending intake of federal inmates is a loss of revenue, but he argues he had no choice.

"We were holding close to 70 federal inmates at the time and planned to be able to continue to hold them when we were expecting to get additional space. This accounted for over $1 million in revenue annually for the county."

Inmates are costly

Unless an inmate is accepted by another facility, he or she must remain in the jail.

"Basically this is how that works," he said. "We send the CI a list of inmates who have been sentenced to serve time locally and are ready to be transferred over. The CI then decides which inmates they are willing to take. Usually (inmates) are excluded due to medical issues. When the CI refuses to take a prisoner, our only option is to hold the prisoner here to serve out his sentence and run up our medical bills."

That can get costly, he said.

"While the medical costs for both places ultimately are paid by the county, it makes the Sheriff's Office appear to be going over budget, when in fact we are holding a prisoner that was sentenced to the camp."

The idea to combine the facilities had merit in that some services could be shared, but since the idea has stalled, Brown said he must maintain enough qualified inmates to keep the jail running.

"Our plan was to move all low-security inmates over to the CI and run our work details out of there," he said. "As that didn't work out, we had to maintain a certain number of inmate workers over here. The CI does not provide us with inmate work details. We must provide our own inmate labor to clean and perform maintenance operations."

Currently, however, there are still shared services; the CI provides the labor for meal preparation and certain specialized jobs, he said.

Working with judges

Couch said he felt Bulloch County's Superior and State Court judges would be able to work with the county and sheriff in sentencing and thus "provide" a source of inmates that would have been eligible for the work/reduced sentence idea.

Brown said that would possibly work but would not solve immediate problems.

"Over time, we may have been able to provide up to 40 or 50 inmates for details. We felt that the Superior Court judges may have begun to utilize the program to sentence non-violent felons to the camp as an option to sending them off to the state prison system, once the CI was converted. This would have added to the number of inmates qualifying for outside work details, and they would be sentenced to longer terms."

But, "we would have probably been able to provide only 15 to 20 (inmates) initially," he said. "I think the county commission felt they would have had to hire additional full-time employees to fill this labor gap."

He said there is no way the jail could provide enough workable inmates to equal the availability of qualified state inmates to handle labor needs.

Also, county jail inmates often have illnesses or conditions preventing them from being good candidates for a work program, he said.

"When a prisoner is sentenced to the state prison system, he or she is initially sent to a diagnostic or classification center," Brown said. "The prisoner receives a thorough medical exam and is given a security classification based on his or her criminal history and institutional history."

County jail inmates aren't screened, and if problems arise with a county inmate, the jail must deal with the issues at hand, he said.

"If a state prisoner becomes seriously ill while at the CI, they simply send him back to the state system," he said. "If the inmate refuses to work or is subject to constant disciplinary issues, they just send him back. This is why state prisons can fill their facilities up to the maximum number of beds, whereas county jails must have extra space to shift people around."

When an officer brings in someone who has been arrested, jailers never know what to expect, he said.

"The prisoner may be charged with anything from disorderly conduct to armed robbery. The prisoner may be male or female, elderly or juvenile or anything in between. He may have an infectious disease or a severe mental health condition. ... She may be pregnant. We just can't pick and choose our prisoners. If a criminal with severe medical conditions breaks into your house, we just can't refuse to accept him. We can't just send our prisoners back because they are assaulting staff or fighting with other inmates."

This means the general population of the jail at any given time includes inmates who would mostly be ineligible for the proposed work-reduced sentence plan, he said.

Space still an issue

The dilemma between Brown and county commissioners remains as each entity seeks solutions to the challenge of keeping taxes from skyrocketing and housing an increasing number of inmates in the jail. Couch and commissioners have noted that the jail overcrowding is not an issue that began when Brown took office but had already reared its head during the previous sheriff's tenure.

The issue must be resolved for the benefit of the county's residents, he said.

"It is true that as time passed, unexpected issues appeared concerning the overcrowding situation and suggested plan to ease it," he said. But "commissioners deal with challenges from all county departments," not just the Sheriff's Office and jail. 

Communication is vital to solving problems, Couch said.

"It is essential to continue to intelligently discuss ways to make this work by minimizing taxpayer cost and managing expectations. ... We need to make the transition a 'win-win' for the citizen taxpayer and not a 'win-lose' between the sheriff and the Board of Commissioners or other county departments who always need more resources as well."

Brown said he looks ahead in hopes of finding a solution. But "I'm not going to overcrowd or short-staff my jail," he said. "That is dangerous and could lead to unnecessary lawsuits."

Renovations

While the jail pod issue remains, county officials have already begun to plan for in-house renovations to help ease overcrowding of another kind: office staff and facilities.

Bids will be let soon for a new building to house admissions and a medical unit. The estimated cost of these renovations and expansions for office and medical space is about $5 million.

"The county is going to allow us to occupy the 'Lodge' building directly across from the Sheriff's Office and utilize it for office space," Brown said. 

With those moves, more space inside the main jail building will be transformed into inmate housing, he said. But "while this will ease some of the overcrowding, it will be a short-term fix."

He suggested a possible solution to funding.

"Since the last addition to the jail, the Sheriff's Office has raised over $7.5 million in revenue by holding federal prisoners," he said. "In the future … I would suggest building at least one high-security housing unit with 100 beds dedicated to holding federal prisoners. This would pay for itself as well as an additional pod. I would also suggest that in the future, any monies received from the U.S. Marshals for housing prisoners be earmarked and placed in a separate fund specifically for future jail expansion."

Couch reiterated that he and commissioners are more than willing to discuss ideas and plans at length, but that Brown must work with them and open lines of communication in order for progress to be made.

Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.

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