In August, when the Criminal Detention Facilities Review Board said the jail would be closed if it could not meet state requirements, Judge Willett and Salem Police Chief Albert Roork began the long process to find the best solution for the county.
"Al and I started talking to different people trying to figure out what we could do. Our biggest concern was we didn't want to put any tax burden on the people of Fulton County, no millages, because basically our people are taxed out," Willett said.
An architect firm was contacted to look the situation over and come up with the best plan.
"We had them look at our old jail to see what we had to do to bring it into compliance, build a new facility, or use the old nursing home building. Right up front we told them not to present something that was $3.5 to $4 million because Fulton County couldn't afford it," Willett said.
The first idea presented to the county was for a new facility that would cost $4.2 million. "We told them that wasn't going to work," Willett said.
The architects looked at the current jail and the old nursing home building but couldn't come up with a bid under $2.4 million. A new architect firm, Lee and Associates of Batesville, was asked to look the situation over to see if a better plan could be found. They also advised building a free standing building.
"We first thought about tearing the back part off the back of the old nursing home building and using that, but then we'd have to put a sprinkler system into the whole building and $200,000 plus was the estimate for that," Willett said. "They told us, 'if you start building on then your going to go back to $2+ million.' So, they came up with this design that will house 24 inmates and it was $1.2 million plus architect fees which are 7 percent of the $1.2 million."
The judge said they then started looking for a way to pay for the new construction. He said each year the county budgets $35,000 to house prisoners in other jails and that could be used as part of the payment.
They then met with Fulton County's Public Facilities Board which consists of Jim Short, Ted York, Carolyn Lewis and Karrol Fowlkes.
"The Public Facilities Board can borrow the money for the jail for unlimited years, and then sell it back to the county for $1, where we, the county, would have to pay a loan back in 5 years," Willett said.
The Department of Human Services (DHS) building in Salem was built using this board. That building is now leased to the state of Arkansas. Because of the money received from the lease, the board has money in an account that could be used to help make a payment on a new jail.
"What we're getting right now, and this is a rough figure because we're still finishing the paperwork, is the payment will be about $61,000 a year. We have $35,000 and they're going to match the difference for our payment," Willett said. "Johnny James, through the USDA, because of our low to moderate income based on our census -- whatever your average income is in the county, they have a guideline on what you can be reimbursed for on a grant -- so, we're available for 15 percent, which is approximately $200,000 we can get in a grant. So, that put our cost back to $1 million plus architect fees. Johnny James, working with the USDA, said they could finance it up to 40 years at 4.23 percent interest. So, that's what we're working on now."
"We met the last week in December -- the jail committee, public facilities board, myself, the OES coordinator, sheriff, architects and Project Manager Jerry Blevins -- we made a motion to move on with Lee and Associates to get our blueprints drawn up. When we get that drawn up, we'll send a copy to USDA, a copy to Randy Rankin with jail standards, because we want everybody to review everything to make sure this is what we need in Fulton County," Willett said. "So, that's where we are right now. Mr. Lee is filling all the paperwork out for USDA and they are getting the blueprints. We had thought if everything went well, we might be able to start in February, but paperwork is slow so it may be March."
The preliminary plan calls for a free standing jail building to be built behind the old nursing home building which was deeded to the county early last year for $1. It will be connected to the old facility by a covered walkway. The kitchen and laundry facilities are already in place in the old building and will be used for the new jail.
The old building will be converted into an Emergency Operations Center, multi-purpose complex. A $200,000 grant has been applied for that will be used to remodel the facility. Willett said that all emergency officials will have an office in the complex and a courtroom is also in the plan. In the event of a disaster, it will be the command center for the county as well as an emergency shelter for the public.
"If you come to pay a ticket you will go to one of the offices picked for the sheriff. The only people who will be allowed in that jail is someone to visit or booking a prisoner," Willett said.
A visiting area for the jail will have an entrance that keeps visitors out of the actual containment area. Prisoners and visitors will visit across a divider using a phone.
"You won't be able to just walk in there like you do now; it will be a secured facility," Roork said. "Lots of security cameras everywhere. And this price we've got, it includes everything but beds and the USDA will help us on that also."
The jail is designed to house 24 prisoners, including women. Those charged with felonies will be housed separately from those with misdemeanors. Two holding cells will provide a place to house an inmate who would be considered extremely dangerous, someone on suicide watch and other problem prisoners.
The jail will be completely automated and operated from a central command center that will include the 9-1-1 system. From the command center, jailers will be able to see prisoners in their cells or in a common day room. They will also be able to open, close and lock all cells and doors from this area. Although it is automated, jailers will have keys to all areas, if needed.
In addition to the command center, offices for the jailer, dispatcher and jail administrator will be located inside the building.
Special fencing will be used in an area outside the jail for an outdoor exercise area.
A sallyport at one end of the jail will be opened from the command center to allow officials to drive into a secured location to unload prisoners. The booking area will also be secured.
"We are also going to have 309 inmates come in. They will cook, they will clean, and they will maintain this facility. And the state will pay us to have them here," Willett said. "A 309 is a trustee; they are someone that is serving a term that the state thinks will not be dangerous to go out and maintain a facility. In other words, they do not want to go to Cummins or somewhere like that. They'll be working but they'll be staying at this facility as a cook or something to help maintain this facility."
"You can request an inmate with a specific skill, I need someone who's a good cook, I need someone who can do vehicle maintenance, I need someone who can do business maintenance and outdoor yard maintenance and stuff," Roork said. "Often times, they do work out very well. Most all jails use 309 trustees now. It's just free labor. The state actually pays you to house them. These people are locked up at night and they're supervised. They also know that any kind of infraction and they're gone -- they go back to prison."
The jail will be located in an area that is part residential. Roork said the public should not be concerned about their safety because of the location of the jail.
"What people need to understand about jails are that they house people who have been in the public and will eventually go back out into the public. These people in here are under control. For every one in here, there are a 100 out there not under control. When these people are in here, the public is safe from them," Roork said.
Roork said that Fulton County is dealing with a different type of criminal in today's world.
"We're dealing with a different type of criminal now than we did in the '70s when the jail was built. In the '70s we mostly dealt with alcohol related offenses and marijuana. Once in a while, someone would get upset with their wife and rough them up a little, now we deal with that everyday, everyday," Roork said. "We are dealing with people now who are from all over the United States. We've arrested people from every state -- from Florida to Maine to California -- they're wanted fugitives. We use to not have that. Now, why there coming here now, I don't know, I can't answer that. I just know I started in the '70s and we didn't have that problem back then. We have it on a daily basis now. There's just more travel. There's just more people who, frankly, are not afraid of the judicial system.
"You know, when I came to work back in the '70s they still used the cat of nine tails on prisoners, they whipped your rear end; you don't do that anymore. People are not afraid of jail. It's a structured environment, good food, cool in the summer, warm in the winter; sometimes, it's way better than what they had. When they're in jail they get medical care, dental care. It's just better than the way they've had it. It's hard to put it all into perspective, but we're not dealing with the same situation we were dealing with back in 1970 when the old jail was built."
Roork continued, "This is my own prospective and there will be some of the public that will not agree with this, but unless they've been in my position, they don't know what they're talking about. But, number one, we are not the punishers, we are the police officers, we are out here to protect the public, but we're here to protect the inmates too and to keep ourselves safe.
"And with that said, as individuals out there, family members and stuff, you don't want your family member, your son, your daughter, your son-in-law or someone like that, even if they've gotten out here and broken the law, you don't want them put someplace that's not safe for them. Sure, they have to go through the judicial process and face the consequences of what they've done, but again, we're not the punishers, the court is the punishers and we should not be the punishers. It is our responsibility to keep that inmate as safe as possible, physically, mentally, everything. We can't do that very well over there in that facility, we can't keep ourselves safe in that facility.
"So, that said, you're taking away their liberties when you put them in there and you're protecting the public, but we need to be able to protect them. Because, just because they're in jail does not mean they are a bad person and they still are entitled to be safe. And, when you say, well, it's good enough for them, NO, it's not good enough for them. You know we have the responsibility to make sure they are safe and healthy, and as a police officer that's important to me that that person be safe and that that person be healthy and that the courts do whatever they do necessary that's appropriate for what that person's done, but that's not up to us to do that and we need to be safe ourselves and that's why we need a new facility. That one does not do that and cannot do that. Everybody deserves to be safe."