County jail overcrowding forces sheriff to send inmates back to cities.
Baldwyn Police Chief Troy Agnew has been reaching out to nearby county jails seeking a place to house those arrested by the city police department. He’s finding no room in anyone’s inn.
And, as far as Baldwyn Mayor Michael James is concerned, the city, “is not going to be getting back into the jail business.”
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson has begun releasing inmates currently housed at the Lee County Jail and sending them back to the municipality from which they came. The move follows Monday’s decision by the Lee County Board of Supervisors to renovate the existing Lee County Jail instead of building a new facility.
Johnson had submitted to the board three options on the jail. Lee County District 1 Supervisor and Board President Phil Morgan said he could not support the size tax increase that would be required to pay for a new jail. The estimated price tag of a new jail facility was approximately $51 million, and tax increases to pay for such a building would have resulted in about an average $300 more in ad valorem taxes on Lee County residents each year, based upon current property valuations.
Morgan also told The Baldwyn News that the costs to operate and maintain the jail, which are currently about $2.5 million a year, could skyrocket to as much as $5 million to $6 million per year if a new, larger facility were to be built.
“I can support a mil increase to pay for renovation work, because that could roll off (be cancelled) once it’s paid for,” Morgan said. However, he added, the cost increases to operate a new, larger jail would likely mean the county would have to keep the tax increase on the books permanently, placing an even greater burden on county taxpayers.
Where do we go from here
Johnson, facing the threat of federal action regarding overcrowding at the jail, has begun releasing inmates back to the cities in Lee County. By Wednesday two inmates – both females – had been transferred back to Baldwyn. They were subsequently sent to Prentiss County, where they can be held for up to 48 hours on misdemeanor charges. Those being housed for felonies can be held longer, but Prentiss County is already facing issues with jail overcrowding as well.
Those inmates were expected to have their cases heard at municipal court on Thursday morning, Aug. 24.
Agnew said the city does have cells at City Hall, which originally served as a police station, but that it’s not likely to see use as a jail again.
“The jail is still there, but it would have to be renovated. And we would have to have additional full-time staff to run it,” Agnew said. He said his budget currently would not support that action. “But we’ll have to find some place for them to go.”
Agnew said he had reached out to sheriffs in Union and Itawamba counties, but, “everybody’s in the same shape; they don’t have any room for more inmates.”
Mayor James said he is definitely not for renovating the four-cell block in the back of the City Hall building. He said it would cost too much and place too much of a burden back on the city.
“That’s just not an option,” James said. He cited the costs to renovate the old jail and bring it back to code, hire the staff to operate the jail and then the additional costs to feed and maintain the health of city prisoners.
Johnson told The Baldwyn News that in the past 20 months Lee County has taken in 260 inmates from Baldwyn, an average of about 13 per month. Until Wednesday morning there were four inmates from the city being housed at the jail. The remaining two male inmates will be returned to the city soon.
The cities of Saltillo and Guntown are in a similar bind. Johnson said in the previous 20 months his facility had housed 157 inmates for the Guntown Police Department and 217 for the Saltillo Police Department, an average of about 8 per month from Guntown and 11 per month from Saltillo.
James said the only jail he knew of regionally that could immediately take inmates in is in Chickasaw County. The city would face additional costs related to transportation to that facility which is at least an hour and a half away.