Sheriff’s officials in Russell County have completed a multimillion-dollar jail expansion they say will greatly stem overcrowding. They also announced plans for a new video visitation system that will take the place of “real-life” visits with inmates.
The $3.1 million improvement project came in under budget by some $120,000 and included a number of upgrades to the facility’s aging equipment, Sheriff Heath Taylor said.
“This is a hallelujah day,” Peggy J. Martin, the chairwoman of the Russell County Commission, said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony inside the new dorm. “They say crime doesn’t pay, but it costs. It costs all of us taxpayers.”
The jail was built to house some 225 inmates, but more than 400 have been crammed into the lockup in recent months, Taylor said. The new 15,000 square-foot dorm adds 120 beds, and 13 new employees have been hired to supervise the inmate population.
“This is going to give us a lot of breathing room,” Taylor said.
The sheriff said the jail has been particularly unequipped to handle the influx of women being jailed over the years. The jail was intended to house 16 women, but 52 were being held Thursday morning. Of the 120 new beds, Taylor said 40 are for women.
“In a way, it’s sad that we even have a need for these type of facilities,” said Circuit Court Judge Albert L. Johnson.
A who’s who of city and county officials celebrated in the dorm Thursday morning, complimenting the facility over chicken fingers and cheese cubes. Mayor Sonny Coulter said the expansion had been “direly needed,” and said the accommodations were likely nicer than the homes of many of the inmates.
The festive mood belied the earlier tension between city and county over who would foot the bill for the new dorm. The entities long have disagreed over the wording of an operating agreement that divides the cost of capital expenditures in the jail, with the county paying two-thirds and the city carrying one-third.
When the jail was constructed, some 70 beds were designated to house inmates jailed for city offenses, though city officials say they use only a portion of that allocation. The city has contended that its inmates did not prompt the overcrowding, and that the county has the burden under state law to provide adequate jail facilities.
After a series of meetings, city officials “respectfully declined” to contribute to the cost of the new dorm, but agreed to pay some $250,000 for other improvements in the jail, said Stephen C. Smith, the city’s finance director.
County officials still say the contract calls for the city to contribute its share, and Commissioner Gentry Lee said the county hasn’t decided yet whether to pursue legal action against the city. “We just basically came to the conclusion we needed it, we were going to build it and then we’ll get to” the matter of the contract later, Lee said.
Commissioner Tillman M. Pugh said he wants to meet with the new City Council this fall before discussing any litigation. “We really owe them the due diligence,” he said.
On a political note, Coulter in his remarks took a dig at outgoing Councilmember Jimmy Wetzel, calling attention to his absence from the ceremony and congratulating Mayor-elect Eddie N. Lowe. “As I look around the room, I don’t see any of the ‘20 percenters’ who serve on City Council who didn’t make it here today,” Coulter said, referring to Wetzel’s landslide loss at the polls.
Taylor on Thursday also briefed reporters on a new video conferencing system the jail is preparing to launch that he hopes will cut down on contraband.Instead of face-to-face visits in person, visitors will be able to come to the jail and use one of nine screens free of charge in a video visitation room. Remote visitations for attorneys, media and other visitors will be provided through Securus Technologies, Inc., for a charge of about $20 for 20 minutes, Taylor said. The Sheriff’s Office receives $4.50 of that cost, he said.
The system will save manpower and increase safety as jail officials won’t have to escort inmates to the front of the jail, Taylor said.
“The bad side is people are going to say we don’t get to physically see our loved one any more,” he said. “That’s true. That’s not going to happen anymore, but the good side of it is it’s a lot safer and it cuts down on contraband.”
“You’re going to be to be sitting in California, log in and visit with an inmate in the Russell County Jail,” Taylor added. “That’s exciting. That’s moving forward.”