Because of the increased number of arrests, the Sharp County jail is running out of room to house prisoners.
At the Sept. 13 quorum court meeting Sheriff Dale Weaver proposed an addition to the jail that would expand the area available for prisoners.
"It's not going to be the entire answer to the problem over there but it will help," Weaver said.
The addition would add eight beds to the jail, an additional visitation room and an additional holding cell. The expansion is estimated to cost $80,000 to $85,000. The court voted unanimously to sign a $300,000 promissory note with First National Banking Company to pay for the addition, along with the new county road shop being constructed on Fairgrounds Road and a fence around the new shop.
The jail currently can accommodate a maximum of 30 prisoners, but that sometimes isn't enough, Weaver said.
In 2003 more than 1,200 prisoners were booked in the jail. Approximately 20 inmates, most with felony charges or misdemeanor charges waiting to appear in court, were in the jail each day, triple what it was in 2002. But the average prisoner count continues to rise largely because of drug arrests.
The jail has often been jampacked with prisoners; making room for all of them becomes a balancing act.
The sheriff sometimes has to use his authority and release the inmates with lesser charges to make room for those charged with felonies. The judges also work with the sheriff to make sure the county has room before bonds are issued. Six to 12 inmates post bond immediately following their court appearance, Weaver said. Some inmates found guilty of more serious crimes and ordered to the Department of Corrections often stay at the county jail anywhere from a week to three months before a slot opens at a state facility, which is also overcrowded.
"We would absolutely have no place to hold anyone if bond was not issued," Weaver said. "The judges know that and they try to help us out as they can."Because of the crackdown on drugs, changes have been made to increase the efficiency of the jail and to make room for the additional prisoners.
In 2003 the jail reorganized to house both male and female inmates. By changing the way the jail is organized, the 28-bed facility can house 19 male inmates and nine female inmates in completely separate quarters. Two more inmates can be held in what Weaver calls "the drunk tank," a cell separate from the other jail population.
Before the reorganization the county had to ship female inmates to other counties at a cost of $50 a day per inmate. Although the reorganization has helped tremendously it hasn't solved all of the jail's problems.
"I think this will give us all a little more freedom when we get this add-on done," Weaver said.
The county plans on using the revenue from the 1/4-cent sales tax to pay off the note on the shop and the jail. The tax generates approximately $2,500 a month and will sunset in March 2006, Crawford said.
"This $85,000 will pay for itself by not shipping ladies out of here," Judge Harold Crawford said. "We've got the 1/4-cent sales tax and we've got the money to do it."
The addition will allow the sheriff to separate inmates by the classification of their charges -- misdemeanors and felonies.
"Housing them together is risky. It's something we'd prefer not to do," Weaver said. "Separating them relieves some of the county's liability. If something were to happen, we would be liable."
It will also give jailers an additional cell in which to attend to mental patients placed in the facility to minimize harm to themselves and others.
This expansion has been discussed for more than a year, but now is the time to make it happen because of interest rates and the sales tax approved by voters in November 2003, Crawford said.
"It definitely is feasible and it definitely is economical. It will never be any cheaper than that 4-percent interest rate," Crawford said.
Bids will be solicited soon.