Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CXXV): New jail about to open, but is it under "worst case scenario"?

I have often followed on these pages the goings on related to the county jail in Newton County, Arkansas, the persistent poverty county where I grew up.  Some earlier posts are here, here, here, here, here, and here.  The most recent post is here, from August, 2013.

In short, the county's century-old jail was condemned by state inspectors as unsafe in about 2007. The county's Quorum Court (the equivalent of a Board of Supervisors) decided to put the funding of a new jail to the voters, proposing a 1/2 cent sales tax to build the jail and another 1/2 cent sales tax to fund its operation.  In the fall of 2008, voters approved the former but not the latter.  Over more than five years, there have been many false starts and a lot of wasted money preparing building plans and preparing sites that ultimately proved not useable for the facility.  Finally, in 2012, the county bought an existing building (that had actually been a person's home and garage, albeit in a metal building), and proceeded to convert that building into a jail.  But the new facility still lacked operating funds after a 2012 ballot measure seeking approval to finance the operation with sales taxes again failed.  Finally, last November, the Quorum Court "levied the county general operating fund to 5 mills the maximum allowed by state law without voter approval to generate more revenues for the jail and other county offices."  All was set … except that the county still apparently did not have enough money to staff or use the jail, not least because those funds won't be available until after collected, in October 2014.

Enter the State of Arkansas.  The state came to the rescue this year--in more than one way.  First, State Senator Michael Lamoureaux helped the county to secure a $400,000 grant to finalize the jail's construction "and furnishing costs to free up other money for maintenance and operation purposes," quoting a July 9, 2014 story in the Newton County Times.  Elsewhere, that story mentions a $150,000 grant to purchase furnishings and equipment, including large clothes washer and dryer. (It is not clear if this $150,000 grant is part of the $400,000 the Senator helped to secure).   This state funding comes in two cycles, the first from January, 2014, and the second beginning in June, 2014.

The second way in which the state is involved is what I am suggesting may be a "worst case scenario." The jail can open, apparently, contingent "upon the jail being able to house state prisoners," for which the Arkansas Department of Corrections (DofC) will pay the county $28/day for each prisoner housed.  According to the Times, the D of C "is in a financial and overcrowding bind.  A special session of the state legislature was called earlier in the week to take up the matter."

Net-net:  It appears that the Newton County jail is about to become operational--but that it will do so only by becoming part of the national prison industrial complex.  Read more from the 2012 story regarding the same phenomenon in Louisiana … and it's happening in other states, too.

I'm not convinced that Newton County needed its own jail. It was paying a reasonable amount of money to house prisoners in the jails of surrounding counties.  The only thing Newton County will get out of the current arrangement is some local "pride" in having its own jail--and a couple of jobs for those who operate the jail.

I assess it as a sad day for Newton County.

In other jail-related news, these facts are from various issues of the Newton County Times in recent months:

  • In early May the Quorum Court appropriated $32,059.61 in Title Three funding to the sheriff's office.  These are federal monies received to compensate the county for providing emergency services on federal lands.  
  • Members of the Criminal Detention Review Committee for the 14th judicial district toured the "soon to be opened" Newton County jail on July 2.  The facilities were described thusly in the news report 
segregated facilities for male and female adult misdemeanor and felony prisoners, the drunk tank, short term holding cell, and even a special cell for a prisoner having a physical handicap.  It can also be used when a prisoner needs a 'time out' and be isolated from the rest of the jail population.   There is another room for securing medications and prisoners' valuables.   
From the main control room sheriff's personnel can monitor all areas of the facility via cameras.  They can control lighting, water and even air in each of the cells.    
* * * 
The fully equipped commercial kitchen can prepare 90 meals that can be served each day at the jail.  The jail can house up to 30 prisoners.  [The jail administrator] said that cooked meals will be served because it costs less than buying prepackaged and processed meals.   
* * *
Prisoners must also be abel to have one hour of outdoor exercise each day.  A small outdoor exercise area consisting of a cement pad surrounded by a rectangular chain link cage topped with razor wire fills the need.  A perimeter fence keeps the prisoners from coming into contact with outsiders and getting contraband passed to them … outdoor sessions will be at random.  

No comments: