Jackson County Jail Closing?

NEWPORT, AR (KAIT) - Officials with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department Monday said all of the county's law enforcement agencies would suffer if the state forced the jail to close.

"They have given us some warnings, write ups in the past about overcrowding, not being able to separate prisoners by class. And it's time that we get a little bit larger jail," said Maj. Charles Vaughan.

Vaughan has been a member of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department since 1996. He said crime is on the rise in the county, therefore, so is the number of inmates he must handle.

"The crime rate is up. People are stealing more. They're using more drugs. There's just more crime out there right now than there has been in the past. It's getting worse every year," said Vaughan. "The problem is that we're out there, trying to arrest those that need to be arrested and put them in jail, and hold them until they go to court."

Arkansas' Jail Standards Review Committee is examining the Jackson County Detention Center, which has been placed on 6 month probations for several years. The committee wants the jail to provide more rooms for inmates, hire additional officers and have the space to separate inmates based on criminal background.

"The major thing right now is we're just trying to find some money to do some expansion. We need to expand our jail because we've been overcrowded for the past 5, 6 years," said Vaughan. "We just want to expand what we got, bring it up to meet our needs of the day."

Jackson County ships out several inmates to other jails in Region 8. Vaughan said he has inmates in Poinsett, Independence and Craighead counties. Other counties charge $45/day to house inmates from another location. Vaughan said that translates to $500,000 worth of expense just to provide shelter. Vaughan said that doesn't count medical expenses.

"It puts a hurt on all of us, not just the sheriff's department and jail but it puts a hurt on the rest of the county too because we're mandated that we got to operate the jail. We got to take care of that and the money has got to come from somewhere. It shortcuts us at other places in order to take care of what we got to take care of here at the jail," said Vaughan.

"This is a poor county and we're doing the best we can with what we have. I don't think we're going to lose the jail personally. That's my personal opinion. I think we're going to get it back in operation and get things going," said Jim Cooper, Jackson County Quorum Court member.

Voters struck down a proposal that would have increased the sales tax by a half cent. If approved, the county jail system would benefit from increased revenue. In order to expand, Cooper said, the county must trim its budget.

"We tried that and it didn't pass and I don't think a tax would pass again. We have a pretty high tax rate right now," said Cooper.

The detention center normally holds 26 inmates at one time, but sometimes it holds more than twice that. Cooper said they sometimes have to turn criminals around at the door after booking.

"One thing that they do is that if they have a misdemeanor prisoner and they don't have room for him, they have to turn him loose and he's back on the streets," said Cooper. "We're waiting to see what the Jail Standards says when they come back and check. I'm sure there are some things that we're going to have to do."

"Some of the problems we can't, we cannot take care of, like the overcrowding. We can paint from now on but you can't paint an extra room, and the extra room is what we need," said Vaughan.

"I know we need to do some work on the jail and I think an add-on is what we need, but right now we don't have the revenue to do that," said Cooper.

Cooper offered a bleak forecast if the jail is forced to close.

"You have the possibility of escapes. You don't have enough people to keep an eye on them. It's just a bad situation," said Cooper.

The jails capacity is currently cut as workers install a new heating system, but Vaughan told Region 8 News the jail should be back up to full capacity by Friday.

Local Reaction

"It'll make an impact and there will be the perception possibly by the criminals that they don't have a jail here that there's less focus on preventing crime," said Ron Mergy.

"If officers are having to spend their time transport a person to another county, that's less clock hours they can actually use in town," said Mergy.

"Any of the tax revenue that is generated locally should stay locally. Pay for the local infrastructure instead of another county's," said Mergy.