BY LEANN DILBECK –
The Mena City Council signed a resolution during their July meeting to donate approximately five acres of land located at the Mena/Polk County Industrial Park on the north side of town to the Polk County Sheriff’s Department for the purpose of building a new County jail facility. The transfer of the property is contingent upon both the County securing funding for the project and construction plans being finalized.
The Council acknowledged the need for the project recognizing that the facility is challenged to meet state and federal compliance regulations due to the jail population and pledged its full support of the efforts of Polk County Sheriff Mike Godfrey.
The Council’s Finance Committee first evaluated the present situation during a meeting on June 11 to discuss possible partnerships the City of Mena could offer to address the serious issue facing local law enforcement. According to Godfrey, the current jail is over 30 years old and is no longer meeting state standards, even citing that the last inspection was “not favorable.” Godfrey explained that several jails in Arkansas have already been shut down, “and it won’t be long before they shut down ours.”
The jail does not have several design features that the state now requires that wasn’t required when the current jail was built but the Polk County Detention Center has been “grandfathered” in. Godfrey said any changes made to the jail would then take it out of the grandfather clause and require it to meet the new standards imposed by the state.
Polk County’s jail is designed to hold 26 inmates and, as of May 2 of this year, 35 were in custody. “This creates an unsafe environment for the jail staff and inmates. If an employee or inmate gets injured due to overcrowding, Polk County could be found liable in a civil lawsuit. Jail overcrowding lawsuits are expensive to defend and often result in large judgements.”
The current situation is also preventing the collection of fines, fees, and restitution. “Due to our limited bed space, Polk County currently has over 1,600 active warrants that can’t be served. The fines and fees connected these warrants is $1.9 million. That is money that will go to the County and to pay restitution to victims.”
Godfrey first addressed the Quorum Court during their June meeting with a proposal to construct a new jail, a jail that he describes as “not better … just large enough to house the inmate population.” He will again meet with the Quorum Court during their upcoming meeting on July 22 with a final recommendation on the exact location, size and specifications, whether to hold a special election or offer to voters during a general election, etc.
Godfrey says, unequivocally, that the time is now, citing that it is a daily juggling process to manage the overcrowding. And with a 6% inflation rate among construction costs and materials he said, “The longer we wait, the more it will cost to build a new jail.”