Like many lockups in Alabama, the Russell County Jail is running out of room for inmates. The chronic overcrowding has become so pronounced in recent months that deputies are no longer serving some misdemeanor warrants.
“We ain’t got nowhere to put them,” Sheriff Heath Taylor said in a recent interview. “If we stop you for a traffic violation and you’ve got a warrant on you, we take you to jail, but we’re not running out there looking for warrants.”
With the familiar dangers and liability of an overstuffed jail in mind, county officials are planning to build an additional dorm behind the Prentiss L. Griffith Detention Center that would increase its capacity by more than 50 percent. The Russell County Commission is accepting bids for the 120-bed facility, and will open them April 28.
In the meantime, county and city officials have already begun negotiating who will be responsible for footing the bill. Taylor said he is hopeful that “the economic times will let us have it at a cheaper rate than it would a year-and-a-half ago.”
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“We’re hoping it comes in around $2.5 million,” he said, adding it will take at least a year to a year-and-a-half to become operational.
The jail was designed to hold about 225 inmates, but was brimming with about 400 in November. The current population fluctuates between 310 and 350, Taylor said.
“I think that something has to happen,” said Tillman M. Pugh, Russell County Commissioner for District 2.
The additional dorm is “a step in the right direction from keeping a judge from telling us what we have to do,” Pugh said, adding, “We’d rather do it voluntarily and get off everybody’s radar screen.”
Taylor said he and former Sheriff Tommy Boswell have repeatedly stressed to the county the urgency of alleviating overcrowding in the jail.
“We’ve sent them letters three times a year saying we’re crowded and something has to be done,” he said. “I can’t go build a jail and fund it. If they don’t give me the money to do it, I can’t do it.”
Taylor said there are risks of an overcrowded jail that are often overlooked. “What people forget is our jail is staffed for the same amount of inmates as it’s supposed to hold. So if it’s staffed to hold 220 inmates and you’re holding 350 inmates, you can see how the staff is so undermanned that it’s dangerous,” he said. “It becomes a dangerous situation for the inmates and the workers. The more crowded people are, the more they get agitated.”
Russell County knows all too well what can happen when overcrowding goes unabated. The current jail was built in 1991 under a federal court order after several inmates sued the county for civil rights violations stemming from the cramped quarters.
In ordering the construction of a new jail in 1987, John Carroll, a federal judge at the time who was formerly the legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., castigated the county for having “some of the most overcrowded conditions I have ever heard about, let alone ruled on.”
Carroll also ordered the county to trim its inmate count from about 68 to 32. The hundreds of inmates crowding the jail some 25 years later are in keeping with an exponential increase in the state’s incarceration rate.
With one in 75 adults behind bars, Alabama has the sixth-highest incarceration rate in the country. Given its size, Russell County has long contributed a disproportionate amount of offenders to the state’s teeming prison population.
“That’s asking the taxpayers of Russell County to take on quite a burden,” Russell County Commissioner Gentry Lee said of the county’s incarceration rate and the need for additional jail space. “We know that it’s something that’s got to be dealt with.”
A number of factors have frustrated Russell County’s effort to reduce its jail population, Taylor said. Because the state’s prisons are considered a revolving door in which prisoners often serve a fraction of a their sentence, Taylor said local judges have increasingly taken to splitting sentences and requiring time be served at the county jail to ensure offenders spend some time behind bars. Taylor said less than half of the jail’s population is serving a split sentence, or jail time followed by an extended period of probation.
Most of the inmates are awaiting trial. To free up as many beds as possible, Taylor said deputies frequently try to help inmates make bond, either by “getting it lowered, trying to find somebody in their family and trying to work with property.”
“Right now that’s all we can do,” he said.
To accommodate the extra inmates, deputies have set up cots in the living space of the jail pods because the cells are full.
“Those people live next to another guy, kind of like a dorm facility,” Taylor said. “We try to put the lesser charges in the day space, but that doesn’t always work out because we don’t have enough cells. People wind up in the day space with pretty serious charges.”
Taylor said the news media are not allowed to take photographs inside the jail, citing a safety policy.
The new dorm
The addition county officials are considering building has been dubbed “the honor dorm.” Plans call for a 15,000 square-foot facility that would be an open day space with less security. Trusties who work in and outside of the jail would be moved to the new facility, Taylor said.
While the addition is considered essential by local lawmen, discussions of the new facility have rekindled a debate between city and county officials over funding. When the current jail was built, about 70 beds were designated to house city inmates. An operating agreement has since divided the cost of all capital expenditures for the jail: Two-thirds to be paid by the county and one-third carried by the city. City officials, however, have been reluctant to contribute to the new 120-bed dorm because the city typically uses only about half of the beds it’s allotted.
“The city’s agreement with them far exceeds what we actually use out there, yet they want us to help them build what state law says the county will build,” Mayor Sonny Coulter said in an interview. “And therein lies the question of will we help them or not.”
County officials have countered that the Phenix City Police Department arrests most of the inmates housed in the jail, even if they aren’t considered city inmates for long. Pugh, the county commissioner, said it doesn’t matter how many beds the city uses.
“The contract says they’ve got to pay the one-third whether they like it not,” he said.