BY MELANIE BUCK –
Sterling Penix, the Governor’s Appointee Over Jail Standards, paid a visit to Polk County on Thursday, September 1, 2016, to meet with county officials to hear the county’s plan of action for the future of the Polk County Detention Center. The ‘jail issue’ has been ongoing since June 2015 when Penix threatened to shut the county jail down due to non-compliance issues.
Since that date, the county has worked hard to ensure that the jail is kept open. Last Thursday, Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison, Interim Sheriff Jack Peebles, and Sheriff-Elect Scott Sawyer met with Penix and presented a plan of action that has been dubbed the ‘Safety Upgrade’ portion of the plan.
In the Safety Upgrade phase, nine main safety issues will be addressed, as long as Penix and the Jail Standards Committee approve the plan. Those issues are: installation of a smoke/fire alarm system; maintain at or below maximum occupancy; outfitting of handicap cell; create a second exit in the west wing; encase or eliminate electric cords; expand booking area by eliminating the existing kitchen area; expand door within intake area; purchase or create a mobile or detached kitchen; and installation of a camera system. The improvements are expected to take less than 18 months.
Initially, Penix had suggested that the county “think outside the box” to implement compliance standards in the seemingly small jail, and that’s just what the county has done. To expand the booking area of the jail, the existing kitchen will have to be taken out. To compensate, the county has found that a detached kitchen (that will sit outside the jail) will be the best fit for the situation.
The county has allocated $500,000 from general funds to complete the plan of action as soon as approval is obtained from the Jail Standards Committee. Ellison said that as soon as approval is obtained, the architects of SouthBuild will be able to assess the plan and begin construction. In addition to the $500,000 set aside, Ellison expects that another $500,000 can be added next year to complete the project and bring the jail into compliance. “Fresh off of a sales tax election defeat, that was negatively decisive, the Polk County Quorum Court set aside $500,000 to start a fund dedicated to jail improvement and/or jail construction. Conventional thought is that this amount can be added to this fund annually to either partially, or fully fund our eventual facility,” explained Ellison.
Once the Safety Upgrade phase is complete, future plans include either building an addition that will house 24 beds or completely build a new facility. Ellison said, “A deadline of November 30, 2018 will be set to make the decision to either fund the eventual facility with our previously saved dedicated funds, plus additional funds derived from millage, or to hold a sales tax election in the spring of 2019. In the meantime, we intend to press forward with safety improvements to our current facility as cost effective as possible, so that we can apply the most dedicated funds possible toward the permanent solution.”
One of those possible solutions includes a new regional jail system proposed by the state. “We are hopeful that within 18-24 months a regional jail will be operational that we can utilize to help manage any numbers beyond our capacity. A regional jail would be ideal for our post-conviction ADC inmates waiting for a state bed. The regional jail concept would also provide a more desirable and economical option of “farming “out any other inmates, if necessary, while completing our eventual facility,” Ellison explained.
If the county chooses to add on to the current facility, the additional 24 beds would bring the county up to 48 beds and allow them to segregate inmates based on gender, medical status, and degree of offense. If the addition is chosen, the project will be complete by December 31, 2019. If a new facility is chosen, that project would be complete August 31, 2021.
After looking the plan over, Penix said it was “phenomenal” and thanked the county for staying on top of the situation and providing such a detailed plan. Penix said he would try to have an official letter mailed by Friday, September 9, stating whether the plan has been approved or denied.