Construction will soon begin on a new $8 million jail in Jackson County to replace its existing jail, which was facing imminent closure because of crowded conditions and its inability to meet state prison standards.
Officials held a recent groundbreaking on 4 acres of land near Arkansas State University-Newport's campus, but inclement weather has delayed the actual work, said Jackson County Judge Jeff Phillips. Once work does begin, it should take about 15 months before the jail is opened.
"We've been dealing with all that rain," Phillips said. "I'm hoping we can begin work within a couple of weeks after all that water dries up."
The new 104-bed jail will replace the county's 26-bed jail, which is across the street from the Jackson County Courthouse in downtown Newport. That jail was built in 1978 and has routinely failed state inspections.
The Arkansas Criminal Detention Facilities Committee has cited the Jackson County jail for overcrowding, understaffing and having cells that are too small.
In 2008, an inspection team recommended the jail be closed for two months while workers replaced two heating units.
Jackson County Sheriff David Lucas also spent more than $50,000 from his budget on repairing a leaking roof and getting new lights.
The committee placed the jail on its last six-month probationary period on Aug. 12, 2012. The probation ended four days after Jackson County voters favored two three-eighth percent sales taxes to pay for constructing a new jail and funding its operations.
Voters widely approved both measures. The taxes will raise about $1.4 million annually.
"If we hadn't passed that tax, we couldn't build a jail," Lucas said. "This jail would have shut down, and we would have been out of costs transporting prisoners to other counties.
"That would have bankrupted the county," he said.
Other counties faced similar situations and were forced to ask for sales tax elections to help fund jail construction.
Greene County voters supported a three-quarter percent sales tax in 2011 to build a $12 million jail that opened earlier this year.
Newton County voters favored a half-percent sales tax in 2008 to fund construction of a new jail, but failed to pass a second sales tax that would have paid to operate it.
The jail now sits empty; prisoners are sent to neighboring Boone County at a cost of $35 a day.
Voters in Garland, Nevada, Prairie, Crawford and Yell counties also passed taxes to build new jails in recent years.
"Counties have outgrown their jails," said Danny Hickman, the detention facilities committee coordinator. "Every jail is overcrowded, and many are totally out of compliance."
A major reason for the crowded conditions is the increase in the number of state prisoners counties are holding, said Ronnie Baldwin, president of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association.
"County jails are holding 2,650 state prisoners waiting transport," Baldwin said.
That's more than are in the largest prison in the state, which holds 1,850, he said. "There are 800 more prisoners in county jails than what the Department of Correction is holding [in that prison].
"The county jails are the largest state [prison] facility," he said.
He said it costs counties $18 million a year to house the state prisoners. Counties are reimbursed $28 a day for housing state inmates, but Baldwin said it costs about $45 a day to keep them when considering salaries, jail maintenance and other expenses.
"Counties are letting prisoners go because they can't afford to keep them," he said. "It's a major problem. People are finally starting to understand, and they're building new jails. But it takes three years to [pass a tax and build a jail]. We can't keep going on like this."
Officials will build Jackson County's jail with expansion in mind, Lucas said. The 78,500-square-foot facility is situated on land that will allow for additions.
"There's plenty of room to build on if we need to," Phillips said.
Plans also call for adding a large garden tended by the prisoners, who will raise vegetables for food and help keep some costs down, the county judge said.
The county has received construction bids and plans to rebid a few of the projects, he said. If clear skies remain, construction should begin by the end of the month.
"We're doing all we can," Phillips said. "Within 15 months this will be done, and we'll be in good shape."
State Desk on 06/16/2014