Building a jail is never a popular idea among people. But neither is allowing repeat offenders back on the streets only to steal and break into houses, commit violent acts and keep breaking the law.
The Marshall County Jail just went through a major renovation that had to be done or risk the jail being shut down. A project that started before Covid estimated at $4 million soon ballooned to nearly $10 million due to Covid related issues, such as material supply issues, inflation, reduced labor availability, costs of steel and lumber rising to unprecedented levels and so on. Once demolition started, major problems were found hidden behind walls that were not previously known. I recommended a totally new jail be built and the existing be demolished, but the chairman thought the cost was too much and the decision to renovate without adding beds was made and to look at adding additional beds later. Throughout it all, we are now finished with the renovation and resolved everything but one thing, overcrowding.
The current capacity of the jail is 196 beds. We are averaging 290 to 310 inmates daily. As of today, we are holding 58 females in the female section that was designed to hold 14 people. The jail has not added any bed space since 2001. We have opened up the warrant service detail and I expect the number of inmates to increase. We have worked closely with the judges and district attorney’s office on the daily count of inmates who may qualify for release or get them to court and resolve their cases. But, the majority of people we are holding can’t be released due to serious charges of probation violations, bond revocations, violent offenses, sex offenders and repeat offenders.
The property behind the current jail was purchased from the City of Guntersville by the Commission back in 2013 for the sole purpose of expanding or building a new jail. Since then (10 years later), there has not been a plan in place to do either. Now, I have asked the Commission to put a plan in place and approve hiring an architect and construction manager to design up to a 250 bed expansion on this property to relieve the overcrowding in the jail at an expected cost of $2.5 million which includes architectural design, demolishing two large buildings in the back and prep site work. This is estimated to take 12 to 14 months to accomplish.
The people of Marshall County elected me to enforce the law, protect the public, and make good decisions about public safety. And that is what I intend to do. So, the choice is do we spend the money on expanding the jail or do nothing right now and wait for something bad to happen because of the overcrowding and pay for it later. I cannot simply stand by and do nothing and wait for someone to get hurt or have another correction officer severely injured and pay for it later.
What does having the extra bed space and room accomplish? First, it will spread inmates out evenly and provide less wear and tear on a small confined area packed with people. This will help protect the investment made in the renovation. Second, it will provide room to offer things to help transition inmates back into society such as GED programs, educational studies, workforce development information, drug recovery programs, expanded mental health treatment and assessments. With the exception of limited mental health treatment, we are not able to offer any of these programs now because we do not have the room. Third, the expansion will provide a dedicated medical unit to provide in-house medical treatment. This will help isolate infectious diseases or viruses (Covid, flu, etc) which we do not have the ability to do so now. Fourth, the expansion will provide a safer work environment for correction officers and inmates.
I have a great working relationship with the chairman and the County Commissioners and I am committed to helping find additional funding and solutions to help pay for the expansion through the bond market to solve this problem. For those Commissioners who have come over and toured the jail, they have seen everything mentioned firsthand. The jail population is only going to increase as Marshall County grows. I believe there must be a comprehensive plan going further to solve this problem instead of sitting back and kicking the can down the road and seeing what happens.
That approach has not worked in the past and, ultimately, could cost the county more in the long run and force the Commission to deal with the same problem many years from now.
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