February 10, 2010 Edition

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Sheriff brings crowded
jail to forefront

Capt. Jody Dotson (left) discusses overcrowding of the county jail and a possible expansion with County Judge Alex Latham.
John Bland

Overcrowding in the Lawrence County Jail is a problem that Sheriff Dan Ellison is bringing to the forefront. As sheriff, he is required by state law to address the issue and make the issue known to the county's governing body, the quorum court.

As of Tuesday, the jail was housing 53 inmates. The current facilities are designed to hold 42 inmates at capacity.

At a county budget committee meeting held Feb. 1, Ellison told members that the jail count had been 58 or 59 inmates the previous week. That is 16 to 18 over capacity, causing some inmates to sleep on the floor, he said.

Bathroom facilities are also inadequate with only two showerheads. "We (have to start) giving showers at 2 or 3 in the morning," Ellison said.

The sheriff has suggested a 2,000-square-foot addition to the existing jail, containing 25 more beds, as a proposal to alleviate the problem. Such a project would cost an estimated $300,000 to $400,000. However, some members of the budget committee have expressed concern that this is not the best solution because of a proposed justice complex.

In mid-2009, the county purchased 6.2 acres of land from The Children's Shelter for $60,500 with long-term plans to build a justice complex that would hold a courtroom, circuit clerk's offices, sheriff's department and jail. The land is located in Walnut Ridge, between West Free and West Elm Streets, near the existing courthouse.

Jim Jones of Imboden, a quorum court justice and member of the budget committee, said the $300,000 to $400,000 cost of a jail addition could be applied to the cost of a new justice complex.

Sheriff Ellison said he agreed with Jones but expressed concerns about the current overcrowding, which continues to worsen and is a problem that might not wait several more years for a solution. He said last year's inmate count went from the 30s, then 40s and now to the 50s. "I assure you, if we had 100 beds, I could fill them up tomorrow with prisoners from surrounding counties," Ellison told the budget committee.

He also noted that the jail was housing nine state prisoners. "We cannot refuse a state prisoner by law," he said, adding that the county is reimbursed for those costs.

Ellison told the budget committee that the Little River County Jail in Ashdown closed Jan. 1, because it was found to be inadequate. He added that potential costs to Little River County would be in access of $500,000 annually to pay surrounding counties to house their inmates.

"I know Dan's got a problem; I sympathize with him," Jones said. "Every jail in Arkansas has a problem with overcrowding. Every single jail."

Junior Briner, chairman of the budget committee, told members, "We need to take our time and make the right decision when all's said and done."

Judge Latham noted that fines through the Sheriff's Department had generated $43,000 in revenue the previous month. He suggested using that revenue stream to finance bonds and avoid asking voters for a sales tax to finance the addition or complex.

Agreeing with a previous statement by Jones, Judge Latham said, "Jim's right, you could not pass a sales tax right now to pay for it."

A jail committee had planned to meet Monday prior to the quorum court meeting to tour the jail. However, the tour and meeting were postponed due to snow.

Judge Latham said Tuesday that the quorum court might meet later this week.

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