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Mena Arkansas News covering Polk County and the surrounding area

Expansion planned for county jail

Plans to expand the county jail are on the horizon; however, unlike the projects accomplished to satisfy state requirements, the expansion positions the jail for success without pressure from the state.

Judge Brandon Ellison said before a plan was agreed upon, the state requested Polk County build a new jail, which would have cost up to $15 million and threatened to close the jail.

“We said no and submitted a plan to keep in compliance,” Ellison said. “Now we are working on expansion with no external pressure.”

In 2016, there was a laundry list and an ultimatum given to the county by the State Jail Coordinator. 

Ellison said some of the items on the list were: smoke/fire alarms, the need of handicap cell, creation of new exit in west wing, encasement of some electrical, expanded booking area, enlarged door in intake area, installation of comprehensive camera system, an exercise yard, and expand and upgraded kitchen. 

“We have addressed all of those things,” Ellison said. “We created more booking area by building a detached kitchen outside the facility but inside the fence. We removed a wall that enclosed the kitchen for that expansion. We spent about $600,000 for all of that work. In 2016 our concern was to keep the jail open. The one item that has been impossible is enlarging the facility, but, because we are not overcrowding, that is not an issue they can punish us for.”

The projects to bring the jail into compliance were funded by the county, and the upcoming jail expansion will be as well.

“We funded the compliance issues out of our pocket. We had to stall a little while we squirreled away some funds,” Ellison said. “We have been very frugal with ordinary expenses and luckily our revenue, due to the improving economy, has risen.”

Architects are currently working on drawings in preparation for the bidding process.

“We are actively in the process of jail expansion,” Ellison said. “We believe we will need $2.3 to 2.9 million to add enough space for an additional 32 inmates. That will give us a capacity of around 60.”

Polk County Sheriff Scot Sawyer said the expansion is needed.

“When I took office one of the big challenges was the state was working to shut the jail down and I promised to keep the jail open and not transport inmates to other counties and pay the fees, beacuase that is not cost effective.”

Sawyer said the jail was built in the 1980’s and jail standards have changed since then.

Currently the jail has 28 beds and Sawyer said that is not enough to meet the needs of Polk County. 

“The voters said they did not want a 1 cent sales tax, which would have funded a new jail,” Sawyer said. “So we have worked hard on planning and putting money back and keeping budget tight.

Because COVID restrictions have forced the jail to house at 50 percent capacity, Sawyer said the county is not holding any misdemeanors.

“We just don’t have the room, and that is a disservice to the county. Expanding the jail will address that.”

When there is not enough room at the county jail, inmates are transported to other facilities that can charge fees, often $50 to $60 a day, to house inmates.

“If the jail were to have closed, at 30 inmates a day,  it would cost $1,500 a day to house inmates elsewhere, plus transportations charges for court dates and such,” Sawyer said. “Financially that is not an option for us. I’m happy with the progress we have made. Retro- fitting an old jail takes a lot of time and attention to detail. But a lot of progress has been made.”

Ellison said bids are expected in late summer of this year. 

“We have about 1.5 million dedicated for this now, so we will have discussions as to how best to go forward,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy, but we will find a way.”

Currently, there are no major issues with jail standards, Ellison said. 

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