Jail proposal presented to standards committee - The Mena Star: News

Jail proposal presented to standards committee

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Posted: Wednesday, September 7, 2016 3:07 pm

Following a meeting with Arkansas Jail Standards Coordinator Stirling Penix on Friday, the Polk County Jail is one step closer to being in substantial compliance with state standards. Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison said he, the Quorum Court and the Polk County Sheriff's Department have been working hard to develop a reasonable plan to keep the jail from being closed by making a Polk County Detention Facility Plan of Action which start by implementing a safety upgrade by December 31, 2017. "I think it's a solid plan," Ellison said. "There has been a lot of thought put into this. Jails are important. We don't want to be a county without a jail."

If approved by the Jail Standards Committee, the safety upgrade would address issues found in a mid-2015 inspection that led the committee to recommend the jail voluntarily shut down. Former Sheriff Mike Godfrey refused to close the jail on the issue that sending inmates to other jails would cost the county too much in additional gas and boarding. He asked to work through the non-compliance list and provide a set of proposals to bring the jail into compliance with the state-mandated standards. The plan was presented Friday to Penix at the Polk County Courthouse by Ellison, with Interim Sheriff Jack Peebles and Deputy Chief Scott Sawyer present from the Sheriff's Department.

The Polk County Detention Facility Plan of Action includes long term plans that would eventually expand the current jail or build a new one and In the short term, the safety upgrade would include using $500,000 set aside by the Quorum court for jail improvements to install a new smoke/ fire alarm system, outfitting a handicap cell, creating a second exit in the west wing, encasing or eliminating electric cords, expanding the booking area by eliminating the kitchen area, expanding the door in the intake area, purchasing or creating a mobile or detached kitchen and installing a camera system and maintaining at or below maximum capacity in the jail. 

"This is phenomenal. This is great," Penix said at the meeting of the plan. "We want to help y'all be as efficient as we can with every dollar. We're open to any ideas you have." While he sung the praises of the presented plan, Penix said it will have to be passed by the full Jail Standards Committee, which has four other members. He told Ellison he planned to have a formal answer by Friday, September 12. "He wouldn't commit, but I would assume (they're) going to (approve it,)" Ellison said after the meeting. "I don't know what else they're going to do with us. I don't think they're going to shut down our jail at this time. (I think) they're going to back off and let us work.

They'll be another meeting or two, but with this substantial compliance, there won't be any threat to shut the jail down." Ellison said the $500,000 to be used for the improvements was court appropriated not long after the defeat of the special election that would increase sales and usage tax to fund the new jail. He said it came from cutting other budgets, tightening belts and going years without county employee raises. "It's been sacrificing," he said. "We just don't spend money on things we don't have to have. We've known about the jail problem for years now. Everyone is pitching in to do what they can." Ellison said the court is also planning on saving another $500,000 for further jail improvements and upgrades.

The action plan outlines longer-term options for the jail as well, which would seek to fulfill the minimum 48 beds required for standard compliance. A regional jail could provide some low-cost relief for overcrowding, but even if that doesn't pan out, an expansion on new building option is laid out. "Under consideration, pending more study from our architect, for the eventual facility, is a new addition incorporated with our upgraded current facility, or possibly a new stand alone jail at our current location," the plan states. As we improve the current facility, we will be able to identify the costs of a 24-bed jail addition that could be funded through existing millage (provided Quorum Court approves). The other option that will be explored for our eventual facility, is building a completely new 50 bed jail.

This would require the passage of a new sales tax." Ellison said they have set a deadline of Nov. 30, 2018 to make the decision to either fund the eventual new jail or do the expansion. If the jail addition is chosen, the action plan states the goal completion date would be December 31, 2019. If the new jail facility is chosen, the completion goal date would be August. 31, 2021. "I think as long as we do pretty much what we say we're going to do, we'll be good for a couple years," Ellison said. "As a county we're going to have to make a decision whether to put some money into a potentially short term jail, possibly throwing good money after bad, or do we want to spend more money on a 30 year fix. It's basically a 10-15 year fix or a 30 year fix."

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