Earlier this year Fulton County voters overwhelming approved an 1/2-cent sales tax increase to save the Fulton County Hospital. A similar measure may have to be passed if residents want to save the Fulton County jail.
"We are going to have to do something," said Fulton County Sheriff Lloyd Martz. "Our jail doesn't meet standards. The state will shut this jail down within a few years if we don't build a new one."
According to a June Jail Standards report, the Fulton County jail is in violation of multiple jail standard codes. The jail cannot house women prisoners, juveniles or misdemeanor offenders.
Additionally the Fulton County jail doesn't have an exercise yard or a partition separating prisoners from visitors, and the jail has an insufficient number of male jailers on its staff.
"The Jail Standards Board allowed the jail to remain open but eventually it will be condemned," Martz said.
Martz said it would cost approximately $2 million to build a new jail. Besides the building costs, the county would have to buy a four- or five-acre building site for a new jail, he said.
"The present jail would be an inadequate site for a new jail," Martz said.
Voters may not be receptive to raising taxes for the jail, but the alternative may be more costly, said Fulton County Chief Jailer Jo Cunningham.
In 2003 the Fulton County jail housed 330 prisoners for a total of 29,700 jail days. If Fulton County farmed those prisoners out to the Izard County jail it would cost $35 per day, per prisoner.
That's $1,039,500 the voters would have payed in 2003 if the jail were closed, Cunningham said.
Martz said the methamphetamine trade has produced an explosion of prisoners over the last two years. The problem is compounded further by the number of female prisoners involved who cost more to detain.
"Because we don't have the facilities to house them, we have to send to other jails," Cunningham said.
Females cost $10 more per day to house in other jails than male prisoners, she said.
Cunningham said last year the county had 74 long-term felony defendants housed, of which 10 were female. As of Nov. 1 the Fulton County has housed 94 felony defendants of which 21 were female.
Three female Fulton County prisoners are being held in the Izard County jail at the present time.
Fulton County Judge Curren Everett said it would be difficult to pass a tax to fund a new jail. He said county residents are weary from the high sales taxes already in place in the county.
"As long as we're in compliance, I don't think a new tax will be a feasible option," Everett said.
Currently, Fulton County residents pay 9 1/2 cents in sales tax on every dollar spent in the county.
Everett said if the Jail Standards Board condemns the jail, the county will have five years to build a new jail. He said the Quorum Court has discussed ways to fund a new jail, but there are few options.
"I don't know of any grants or any other funding mechanism available to fund a new jail," Everett said.
Martz said he knew it would be a hard to ask residents to increase the county sales tax but the consequences of not building a jail could be dire.
"With this meth problem exploding the way it is, we need a new jail. A new jail would pay for itself in five years if you calculate how much it would cost to farm those prisoners out to other jails," Martz said.