(This is the first article in a two-part series discussing the Bulloch County Jail overcrowding and concerns by Bulloch County Commissioners and the Bulloch County sheriff.)
A proposal to help ease overcrowding in the Bulloch County Jail and avoid a tax increase has stalled as Bulloch County commissioners and Sheriff Noel Brown appear to be at an impasse.
Brown has asked for one to two new jail pods, renovated and expanded office space, and more deputies. During a recent public meeting, the sheriff said there were almost 400 inmates in the 466-bed jail on that particular day and he needs more cell space.
The proposed plan was to close the Bulloch County Correctional Institute (CI), adjacent to the jail complex, thus ending the intake of state prisoners, and use the CI facility and staff for the sheriff’s needs. However, Brown said the plan, which commissioners said would solve the overcrowding until more SPLOST funds may become available, won’t work because he can’t supply enough eligible inmates to fit the plan.
Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch disagrees, and said the failure of the proposed plan is mainly due to lack of communication between Brown and Bulloch County commissioners.
The county suggested using the correctional institute to house lower-security local inmates who could possibly perform work in exchange for lesser time. Brown first agreed with the plan, but later, backpedaled, Couch said. “We really don’t know where the wheel fell off the wagon.”
Brown said the idea fell through when he was unable to meet the county’s expectations.
The plan’s pilot model provided Brown with 40 beds in the correctional institute to house some lower-security inmates, which would ease crowded conditions in the jail. The plan was that the sheriff’s office would absorb the 24 employee positions, which would provide some additional staff for the jail and sheriff’s office.
Couch said Brown approached the county in 2017 about building one or two new jail pods. That would cost $15-$24 million and likely would require a significant tax increase, Couch said.
Brown and commissioners began talking about the correctional institute proposal in 2018, and Brown agreed with the concept, Couch said.
“At that time, the sheriff confidently proposed that he could offer between 50-100 low-security inmates in the former CI space for non-skilled labor details or community service,” Couch said.”
Dispute over number of inmates
But once the idea was applied, Brown could only supply up to 15 inmates at the most, according to Couch.
Brown said it was the county’s reasoning that the plan would not work.
“Yes, the plan has changed,” he said in n emailed statement to the Statesboro Herald. “We were informed that due to the fact we would not be able to supply an adequate number of low security inmates under long term sentences that it would be too costly to the county, as they would have to hire additional full time employees.”
In spite of Couch’s statement that Brown once assured the county he could provide plenty of eligible inmates, Brown said recently that doing so is impossible. He said the county changed its mind about the idea once they learned of the shortfall of inmates that would qualify for the plan.
Couch, however, maintained that the halt in plans was due to lack of adequate communication between the sheriff and county leaders.
Brown also said the hitch came when the county realized the number of local inmates available to perform work would not be comparable to the laborers lost with the removal of state prisoners.
“Apparently the County Commission felt they would have to hire more employees to fill the gap left when they lost their pool of skilled inmate labor,” Brown said. “That didn't solve our problem of a growing jail population of pre-trial inmates. Pre-trial inmates who have not been convicted cannot, by law, be used for labor.”
Couch clarified that the intent was never to have the low-security inmates operate heavy equipment.
While Brown agreed at first that he could supply enough inmates to fill the 40 beds offered in the plan, the sheriff never sent that many inmates, Couch said.
“Unfortunately, the dialogue has not yet advanced beyond these matters toward a final solution,” Couch said. “That is the reason that we attempted the pilot program earlier in 2019. Regrettably, we could never get more than a range of 3 to 15 jail inmates for work details. We don't dispute that the number of working inmates could be ramped up to perhaps 30-35 over time.”
The matter could be resolved, with open communication and cooperation, he said. “However, the Commissioner's Office has not been given any substantive details by the sheriff's department on how to accomplish that goal.”
Money, needs and taxes
The county tries to balance between filling needs and avoiding a tax increase. Funds must be distributed to address needs of other county departments as well, Couch said.
Brown’s proposal for the jail expansion included two new inmate pods, “additional administrative space and booking area renovations,” he said.
Plans for the office renovations have already been set in motion, but building one or two new jail pods would mean tax increases by “six or seven mils” if the sheriff’s request for more employees is included, he said.
In order to come up with enough funds to build the new pods, as currently requested, in the next couple of years, a tax increase would be unavoidable.
“$15-24 million would have substantially diminished the amount of remaining Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds available to the county and the cities to meet all of its project demands,” he said.
Recent funding of a new public safety radio system also further strained the county’s SPLOST purse strings.
“The county ultimately committed about $7.2 million, with bond financing, for the sheriff's improvements that did not include new housing pods,” he said.
Couch disputed Brown’s claim that the county commissioners backed out of the initial plan to use the correctional institute because the sheriff’s office could not provide enough inmates to make the plan work plausibly.
“That is not indicative of the message sent by the Commissioner's staff to the Sheriff's Department and appears to have been misunderstood,” he said. “Our concern was not about the cost of hiring additional employees outside of the Sheriff's department who would require inmate crews. The concern was about initial staffing of the former CI facility with more jail detention officers than what appeared immediately necessary.”
More talking needed
Couch believes confident that renewed discussions will be productive.
“There remain very complex issues to resolve to make this transition work that wasn't evident at the time that this initiative started,” he said. “It is essential to continue to intelligently discuss ways to make this work by minimizing taxpayer cost and managing expectations. The discussion needs to continue between the sheriff and Board of Commissioners. We are confident that we can move forward to build a mutual understanding and a good outcome if we can continue to think outside of the box. 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 knew discussions would be necessary regarding the jail needs.
“When I first took office, I began having discussions as far as needing more jail space,” he said. “I knew constructing a new housing pod would be very expensive so I expressed my willingness to utilize the CI and use that facility to supplement jail space. We began planning to integrate that facility and its personnel into our own operations.”
But, “I learned a couple of months out that it would not happen,” Brown said. “No matter how many inmate workers we were able to provide the fact is that most all of these workers would be unskilled laborers. It is unlikely there would be many carpenters, mechanics and welders in the group, and if there were they would not be incarcerated long enough to provide a dependable labor force. This was explained at the outset of these discussions, and several times throughout.”
Couch said he hopes Brown will continue to meet and communicate with commissioners to get to a resolution. “The ball is in his court. The door is open to try again but it takes two to tango”
Brown said he is willing to keep trying.
‘I have always been willing to discuss options,” he said. “But there is one thing that is an absolute fact, and that is the sheriff must hold a large number of pre-trial inmates, most of who do not qualify for outside details. I appreciate the fact the commissioners are concerned about costs and remaining within budgets. “
An article further addressing the jail needs and county concerns will appear in Tuesday’s Statesboro Herald.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.