Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jail Travails

I became aware last year that the Newton County (Arkansas) Jail was in a crisis. In February, 2007, an Arkansas friend forwarded me a story from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the facility being substandard and unsafe. It was, after all, built in 1903.  Journalist Sharon Fitzgerald reported then that county sheriff knew the jail was a problem, but the county had no money to do anything about it. On October 11, 2007, the Newton County Times ran the headline, “Jail Should be in the Smithsonian.” (link not available) That headline was drawn from the quote of David Underwood, coordinator of the Arkansas Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committee, which oversees jail standards for the state. He compared the situation in Newton County to that in Izard County, in north central Arkansas, which had recently built a new $1.8 million jail with tax revenues. He warned the Newton County Quorum Court that they could be liable for problems associated with the jail, including insufficient staffing, which had one person serving as both dispatcher and jailer. Other problems included the facility being too small to segregate misdemeanors from felony prisoners and the booking area not being secure. He also observed that the kitchen is inadequate and there is not room for storage, resulting in items being left on hallway floors. The story reported that the two options for Newton County to finance a new jail were a property tax increase or a USDA public building safety grant.

A few days ago I read that Sevier County (Arkansas) opened a new jail in May, having been without since their prior one was closed because of lack of a fire escape in 1974! For almost 35 years, the county had been keeping its prisoners in the courthouse basement, nicknamed “the dungeon,” or transporting them (at great expense in manpower and transportation costs) to neighboring Miller County. The county sheriff estimates that the jail will save the county $10K to $12K each month -- and that was before gasoline prices really shot up.

Well, the Newton County jail has been back in the news more recently, and county law enforcement officers are now in the situation formerly facing Sevier County. In the past month, two inmates have taken their own lives in the Newton County Jail. On May 11, a 28-year-old man who had been arrested the night before for shoplifting and possession of a controlled substance tied two socks together and hanged himself from the top bunk of a bed. Then, on June 1, a 51-year-old man who had been in the jail since January on arson charges reportedly hanged himself from an overhead air vent with the use of his orange jail pants, having tied the legs together. In both cases, jail personnel had reportedly seen the inmates within an hour or so of their deaths.

Following the second suicide, according to the Newton County Times on June 5, 2008 (link unavailable), Sheriff Keith Slape “emptied the jail, moving seven inmates” to the jail in neighboring Carroll County. He released an eighth, who was being held on a public intoxication charge. He said the jail would stay closed “until we get something done,” and he cited the need to reduce personnel in light of the county’s current budget crisis.

I recently wrote, in an article about domestic violence in rural communities, that responses to that crime (as to others) often depend on local resources, such as adequate law enforcement or a sufficiently large jail. The latter may seem a non-issue for many urban readers, where such physical infrastructure can be taken for granted. But the challenges facing a number of rural Arkansas jails, and the law enforcement agencies responsible for them, are real crises in communities like these, and they contribute to the reputations of rural areas as places where the law is relatively absent. After all, if you're going to enforce the law, you've got to have a place to put the "bad guys."

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