Yell County Sheriff Bill Gilkey starts each day having to decide which prisoners to let back on the streets.
“We’re on the verge every day of being overcrowded,” he said.
“Every day I have to come in and look at who’s in jail and make the decision on who’s going to be the least threat to society, and often that comes down to a petty thief, … sometimes even felony inmates. That’s a decision we’re stuck making every day,” Gilkey said.
The decades-old jails in Danville and Dardanelle — with 30 beds total — are inadequate and don’t meet state standards.
Gilkey and other Yell County officials have said it’s time to start from scratch.
Voters will be asked at a special sales-tax election Jan. 14 to approve a temporary three-fourth-cent sales tax to pay off a construction bond to build a $7 million jail, and a quarter-cent continuous tax for operations and maintenance.
The 75-bed facility would be built in Danville on county-owned land adjacent to the courthouse.
Gilkey said 15 inmates can be housed currently at each facility.
“There are more than 30 people in Yell County who need to be locked up on any given day,” Gilkey said.
He said the proposed facility is one of several being considered.
“That’s one thing — we knew when we started looking at this two years ago that we were going to probably, unfortunately, have to ask the people of Yell County to pass a sales tax to pay for this. We were wanting to give the people the best bang for their buck,” he said.
“Initially, we thought 50 [beds], but upon discussions with contractors and architects, 75 actually became a more viable number, monetarily,” Gilkey said.
“The other thing we wanted to do — we didn’t want to get in the situation that our current facilities are now,” he said.
“We’re landlocked in Danville and basically the same at Dardanelle.
“We wanted to build a facility that 20, 30 years down the road, it could be added onto,” Gilkey said.
”We expect that old jail [in Dardanelle] would be converted to some type of office space for county use,” Gilkey said.
“The Danville jail would probably be converted to much-needed vault space for records because it is underground.”
Gilkey, who in January will start his 16th year as sheriff, said both jails were finished in 1975 within a few months of each other.
Then, state jail standards came out in 1976, he said, and the facilities didn’t meet those standards.
The jail at Danville, which is on six-months’ probation for not meeting standards, was built under the courthouse, he said.
“It’s what’s considered a dungeon-style facility. In modern times, those are somewhat frowned upon,” Gilkey said.
“The problem we’ve encountered with our inspections is the size of each cell is not large enough [per inmate],” he said.
The jail also has been cited for not having the proper number of fire exits, not having a proper booking area and for being too small to separate inmates by classifications, such as felonies, civil violations and misdemeanors.
“We’re facing a large hurdle there,” Gilkey said. “Based on that jail being underneath the courthouse, there’s no way we can go in and expand it, nor can we do the other construction they’ve asked us to do.
“Even if we could, the cost of renovations would probably exceed $7 million,” which is the cost of the proposed new facility.
If the taxes are approved Jan. 14, construction would probably start “sometime in the summer and, with that, it’s about an 18-month construction phase,” he said.
Gilkey said that if only one tax passes, the jail likely won’t be built.
“It’s possible that one could pass and one could fail because it’s happened in other counties,” Gilkey said, “but we have come to the resolution that if one passes and one fails, we probably will not move forward with the project. The maintenance-and-operation portion is very vital to the operation.”
“It’s like buying a car. You don’t want to buy a car you can’t buy the gas for,” he said.
Gilkey said that based on sales-tax revenue, “we could pay that off in 16, 17 years at a great savings to the people of Yell County if we don’t see any changes.”
Gilkey said the Detention Facilities Review Committee will come back and make a review in late February or early March to see if problems at the Danville jail have been corrected.
“If we pass the tax, I would still foresee that the Danville jail is going to close,” he said.
State officials inspected the Dardanelle jail in October and found multiple violations but did not place the facility on probation, but he expects it to be placed on notice on the next inspection.
“There’s some major issues there, and I think they’re going to address them whether the tax passes or not,” Gilkey said.
“The future is not too promising in regard to the two existing facilities,” Gilkey said.
“If we had to close both facilities and had to try to relocate inmates to other counties, that might possibly — and you have to use the word possibly, because you know how overcrowded everyone is — cost $500,000 a year in housing, transportation and employee costs to move those prisoners around. That’s a minimum cost.”
Yell County Judge Mark Thone agreed.
“If we don’t pass [the sales tax] and the jails close, then we’re going to be sending our prisoners all over the state of Arkansas to hold them,” Thone said. “We’re going to be sending our money somewhere else to pay for their facilities and their employees instead of keeping it here at home.
“The new jail is very crucial. This has been coming for a long time, and it’s time for us to make an effort to correct it.”
Thone said “it is kind of unusual” to have jails in two cities in a county.
“Now, of course, with technology, it’d be a lot more cost effective to have one facility,” Thone said.
Gilkey said because the county owns the land, “that’s a major cost savings.”
Thone said two old buildings on the land “that are maintenance trouble anyway” would be torn down.
Both men said they believe voters will approve the sales-tax proposal.
“Everybody’s been real positive; they know we need it,” Thone said.
“I’ve been surprised,” Gilkey said. “A lot of people who normally would certainly be against any type of tax have come forward and told me this is a tax that they would support.
“We could spend a half a million a year somewhere else, … but the main thing I’m trying to stress to people — and the county judge — is we’d like to make an investment in ourselves here and make an investment in our infrastructure.”
Gilkey said he has been making the rounds to civic clubs, fire departments, anywhere one or two people are there to listen.
Thone said the city councils in the county approved a resolution supporting the taxes: Danville, Dardanelle, Plainview, Ola, Havana and Belleville.
Early voting will be held one week prior to Jan. 14 in the courthouses in Danville and Dardanelle, Thone said.
On Jan. 14, all county polling places will be open.
“We certainly wanted to have all the polling sites open to give everybody the opportunity to vote,” Thone said. “We’re at a crucial mark here with either having a jail or not.”
And if a new jail is built, Gilkey won’t have to make the daily decision on which criminals to release.
“That’s one thing about this new facility. We feel like the crime rate will decrease by having it,” Gilkey said. “People go out and offend again and again and again because they know we can’t hold them very long.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.