“Popcorn Night” is no more.
Among the questions posed during a Tuesday political forum featuring candidates for Muscogee County sheriff was this one, which went to incumbent John Darr: Does the county jail really have a “Popcorn Night” for inmates?
No, Darr said: “We do not have Popcorn Night anymore.” That was eliminated a few months ago, he said.
He said the intent of the special treat night was “behavior modification,” to keep prisoners from vandalizing the jail. Corrections officers have said one way to control inmates’ conduct is to punish misbehavior by denying them privileges.
Popped along with that popcorn question was a secondary inquiry about the food served inmates. Apparently, they hate it. What could be done about that?
Darr said the contractor ensures inmates get proper nutrition, and jail administrators closely monitor that service. Some inmates no doubt think they deserve larger portions, he said.
Darr is running for re-election as an independent. His challengers attending Tuesday’s forum sponsored by the Muscogee County Republican Party were Democrat Donna Tompkins, Republican Mark LaJoye and Pam Brown, who was disqualified as a Democrat and is running as a write-in candidate.
Tompkins said the jail food service uses a calorie count to make sure the food is adequate at the lowest possible cost.
Brown said the food is “like slop,” and inmates could be served better meals, with larger portions. Inmates’ families are supplementing prisoners’ diets by boosting their accounts at the jail commissary, where they can buy extra snacks.
LaJoye called the food “pig slop,” saying it’s not nutritious, and people have asked him to change the food services contract if he’s elected.
Another issue was the lawsuit Darr filed against city leaders, challenging their authority to cut his budget.
Darr said he tried to work out his differences with city administrators, but they wouldn’t compromise, so he sought remedy through the courts. He said being “underfunded” and being “over budget” are two different things, and the city has not adequately funded the costs of inmate health care.
Tompkins said Darr failed to communicate with city leaders, and stopped attending budget meetings. “So what I would do different is communicate,” she said.
LaJoye said he consulted a firm in Houston that examined the sheriff’s budget and thought it could be cut by 25 percent. He said Darr should cooperate with the city to resolve the issue. “You just don’t go to corners and lawyer up,” he said, of the lawsuit adding, “That’s ridiculous, and you’re wasting the taxpayers’ money, John Darr.”
Brown proposed budget cuts. “There are a lot of things within the sheriff’s office that could be eliminated to save money,” she said. As an example, she cited a take-home car program she said allowed workers to drive city vehicles out of state.
“I know deputies that have driven city vehicles to Florida,” she said.
Darr was asked about his speaking in federal court on behalf of Columbus businessman Sawan “Sunny” Shah, a friend and campaign donor charged in an income tax refund check cashing scheme.
Darr said he thought Shah should be held accountable for what he did, but did not deserve to go to prison.
Said Tompkins: “I absolutely would not have done that.” Brown said she would not have, either, and so did LaJoye, who said that was one of two issues he heard voters complain most about — that and the sheriff’s budget.
All the candidates when asked said they thought the sheriff’s race should be nonpartisan, though LaJoye added that he didn’t think it mattered much.
They also were asked whether Columbus’ consolidated government needed three law enforcement agencies, the sheriff’s office, the city police department and the county marshal’s office.
LaJoye said he felt the overall number of law enforcement officers on the streets declined after agencies such as park rangers and Housing Authority police were eliminated over the years.
Brown said the marshal’s office could be eliminated were the sheriff’s personnel increased to assume those Municipal Court duties the marshal performs.
Darr said the matter required a careful cost analysis, as the taxpayers still would have to pay deputies to do the work, no matter whom they worked for.
Tompkins noted residents have had a chance to vote to eliminate the marshal’s office, and they voted to keep it.
Tuesday’s forum was held in the auditorium of the Columbus Public Library on Macon Road.