BY LEANN DILBECK –
A backlog of inmates to process for the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) is having a trickle down effect to multiple counties throughout the state, Polk County being among them.
Currently, Polk County is at a record high of 117 inmates at ADC and has another 15 still in custody at the Polk County Detention Center waiting to be processed. According to Polk County Sheriff Mike Godfrey, those 15 are among an estimated 2,700 across the state to be processed and he said that the current system is only able to process at a rate of 46 per day. The issue has created for Sheriff Godfrey, and others across the state, jail overcrowding issues.
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 new 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, 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.”
Godfrey explained that if the state should choose to shut down the local jail, the county will then be forced to house inmates in our counties that come at a significant cost. “At our current jail population, it would cost approximately $45,000 a month to house the inmates. This doesn’t even include the additional fuel and personnel costs associated with transporting inmates back and forth to court three or four days a week.” He added that aside from the costs there are staffing issues with having officers delegated for transports would weaken his department’s presence in the county and decrease their response rate.
“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 plans to address 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.”
As he explained, “Adding on is not a viable option. If we started the process today, it would still be two years before a new jail would be constructed.” The Sheriff wants to build “looking to the future” and construct a new 100-person steel and concrete jail.
“A new jail will allow our department to separate prisoners based on the seriousness of offense and past criminal activities. Currently, felony inmates and misdemeanor inmates are often housed together. This creates a really safety issue that could ultimately result in inmate lawsuits against the county.”
Godfrey said that criminals in the county are also keenly aware of the overcrowding issue and that they know all too well that unless they have committed a violent offense, they won’t be held in our jail for very long. “Because of this, a large number of them fail to pay their fines/restitution, refuse to do their community service, and fail to appear in court.”
For the 15 currently awaiting process for ADC, the county is only reimbursed by the state at a rate of $28 per day but if a larger jail was constructed, Godfrey explained, the county could hold Federal inmates that are reimbursed at a rate of $45 per day or also house state inmates.
For those that argue the county should consider the approach of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arapaio in building a tent city for inmates, Godfrey explained that tent city has generated over 2,000 lawsuits that translates to a loss of money and a major distraction. Not to mention the complications of climate issues, citing recent thunderstorms and tornado warnings, nor the county not having enough manpower to properly secure inmates in the open.
Godfrey said 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.”