By Joe Thomas
LEdger Editor 

Maybe it is time for new county jail


July 4, 2019

It appears the Escambia County (Ala.) Commission is seriously considering building a new county jail after giving Sheriff Heath Jackson permission to approach Brewton Mayor Yank Lovelace about an option to purchase a city-owned 80-acre tract of land across from Southern Pine Electric Cooperative on Highway 31.

I've been hearing the rumblings and rumors about a new county jail for months. Tuesday afternoon was the first time I heard it discussed in a public meeting.

The current jail, which also houses the sheriff's office, was completed in 1993 and was designed for 126 inmates. Sheriff Jackson told commissioners Tuesday he averages more than 300. He also said the current jail was designed for 12 female inmates and he currently has 65.

Back in 1993 the new facility was a Taj Mahal compared to the piece of crap that was across the street.

Should the jail finished in 1993 been built bigger and somewhere else? Looking at it today, I'd say yes, but nobody had a crystal ball to predict the increased criminal activity that is mostly fueled by drugs.

Escambia County is not unique. Most county jails are busting at the seams much like the state prisons.

Jackson is proposing building a 550-bed facility. He's got his eyes set on that 80 acres across from Southern Pine so the county can build it toward the back, which will restrict everyday traffic in and around the facility. He said that was important because where it sits now is accessible to the public on all sides, which means contraband can be passed from all sides.

I've heard the argument that if the county didn't accept federal inmates they'd have more room to house those arrested around here. Those 40 to 50 additional federal inmates take up space, but they also bring in the most money to the county coffers. The county gets $2.25 per day to house a state inmate and if you are put in that jail, you are a state inmate. The federal government pays the county about $47 per day to house their inmates. It's kind of a Catch 22 situation.

But my bet is if Jackson or the county decided not to take in federal inmates, those 40 to 50 beds would quickly be filled by state inmates at the $2.25 per day fee. Take the 50 federal inmates out and your'e still overcrowded even without filling those beds.

I know there are people out there who think jails should be built with cinder blocks with no heat, no air conditioning and no access to a television. They want them to eat bread and drink water and spend their days turning big rocks into little rocks.

First off, many of the people housed in the county jail have not been convicted of anything, they've simply been accused and arrested and we still live under the assumption that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

But more importantly, when you cram inmates into a building like sardines you put correctional officers at risk. Those correctional officers are responsible for keeping order and it's safer to for those officers to deal with inmates who are not mad and frustrated about their living facilities.

Taxpayers want criminals behind bars, but they also don't like to pay taxes to build new jails and new prisons or hire new deputy sheriffs or police officers.

How much will a new 550-bed facility cost? I don't know and I couldn't get an estimate because there are so many variables about land prep, how the facility will be built and also how the bids come in at the end of the day.

So, I don't have a clue. Is it $20 million? Is it $30 million? I don't know and they don't know either.

But I listened as Jackson told the commission about increasing the federal inmates to 200 in the new facility. Take that number off the 550 beds and you end up with 350 for state inmates.

Then do the math, if the county has 200 federal inmates at all times at $47 per day, the county will receive $3,431,000 per year. I doubt they will keep 200 federal inmates at all times, but it gives a starting point. That would make a good mortgage payment.

Right now the county hasn't spent any money other than having the analysis done on the existing jail, which came back saying it would not be feasible to expand or renovate to meet the needs.

I agree with Commissioner David Stokes who told Sheriff Jackson he was one step closer with a location to build the new jail.

It's a step in the right direction, but a lot of ground has to be covered before the county commission votes to move forward with a new jail. But I'll give Jackson credit, several months ago I wouldn't have given him a snowsball chance in Hell to get the commission to even discuss the issue.

Do we need a new jail? I say yes. Will it happen? I don't know. But it is a start.


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