Grand Jury to investigate jail contract

Published 5:23 pm Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Grand Jury on Tuesday requested the District Attorney to furnish it all information pertinent to the City of Bainbridge’s contract to house its inmates at the Pelham City Jail.

The presentments released said, “This Grand Jury is concerned regarding the issue of the jail contracts and governing law. We hereby request that the District Attorney furnish the Grand Jury any and all information pertinent to this official investigation and provide all material witnesses relevant to the Grand Jury.”

The Grand Jury is scheduled to return on Oct. 12 to seek information concerning the jail contracts.

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On July 20, the Bainbridge City Council voted 5-1, with Phil Long voting no, to house Public Safety prisoners at the Pelham City Jail, about 34 miles northeast of Bainbridge. Pelham offered to house each inmate for $30 per day, while the Decatur County Jail offered a renewal of a previous contract that called for $38 per inmate per day.

At the time, City Manager Chris Hobby expressed disappointment with both Decatur County’s rate and also the manner in which it was proposed. According to Hobby, a copy of the former contract—which dated to 2004 and still bore the name of the late, former Mayor Bill K. Reynolds—was dropped off at City Hall without any meeting between the two local governments’ representatives.

City Manager Chris Hobby and the city’s attorney, Tom Conger, said Wednesday the Grand Jury has no investigative function over the city government.

“The best thing that could happen is to get investigated if you haven’t done anything wrong,” Conger said.

Historically, the Grand Jury has overseen the jail, such as inspecting it and making suggestions on maintenance issues and such.

As for the jail contract, Hobby said dialogue between city and county representatives has been going well.

“We have had good dialogue with [County Commission Chairman] Earl Perry and [County Administrator] Tom Patton, and we will be able to get some things done,” Hobby said. “We haven’t had a meeting yet, but we have had good dialogue with the commissioner’s office.”

Patton said he, Perry, Hobby and Mayor Edward Reynolds were scheduled to have one of their regular, informal breakfast meetings this Friday.

“I’m sure [the jail contract] will be one of the issues discussed,” Patton said. “We work together to make things better for everybody. I feel confident we will able to work something out.”

In the meantime, Decatur County Sheriff Wiley Griffin, who said he had testified before the Grand Jury, had a letter hand-delivered by a deputy to each Bainbridge City Council member suspending all fees for housing city inmates.

“My duties as Sheriff/Chief Jailer require me to advise you to immediately stop transporting any prisoner outside of Decatur County and that all prisoners must be housed in the county where venue has occurred according to Georgia law and Georgia courts. (Howington v. Wilson),” Griffin wrote in his letter.

“In light of the liability that has been imposed on the taxpayers, I am reminding you that the Decatur County Jail remains available for the placement to house inmates arrested in Decatur County; specifically the City of Bainbridge inmates,” Griffin said. “The housing fee of $38 has been suspended. I will not charge the City of Bainbridge any housing fee pending legal resolution of this matter.”

County Attorney Brown Moseley said the waiving of the fee has not been discussed with county commissioners, who he said have executed previous inmate housing contracts with Bainbridge.

Hobby said Griffin’s letter has no bearing on the city, which is currently continuing the contract between the cities of Bainbridge and Pelham.

“It doesn’t change our position at all,” Hobby said. “We’re going to continue doing what we are doing.”

Hobby in fact said the sheriff’s letter “ramps up the rhetoric,” and “kind of confuses things.”

Patton referred comment on the Grand Jury’s probe and other legal matters to Moseley. However, he said he expected Sheriff Griffin would be consulted during any negotiation of contract details.

“[The Sheriff] is a constitutional officer; it’s his jail,” Patton said. “I can’t speak for the commissioners, but I would think he would be a party to any discussion of the contract terms. It wouldn’t be right not to.”

Patton said it was too early to say how soon county commissioners, who are scheduled to meet next Tuesday morning, might revisit the issue of the jail contract.

Griffin also refers in his letter to court cases that define his duties as sheriff/chief jailer.

“The first case is Howington v. Wilson 213 Ga. 664 Georgia Supreme Court, which states (in summary) that a court (or anyone else for that matter) may not move an inmate from a ‘safe and secure’ jail in one county to a jail in another county without the authority of the sheriff/chief jailer,” Griffin wrote. “The second case is Manders v. Lee (United States Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit), which states that a sheriff/chief jailer is an agent of the state and immune from lawsuit to run the Jail. As sheriff/chief jailer, I assure you that The Decatur County Jail is a safe and secure facility.”

“I’m not sure I agree with everything in [the Sheriff’s] letter; I’ll leave it at that,” County Attorney Moseley said.

City’s response to letter

Late Wednesday, Conger delivered to Griffin a response to his letter.

In it, Conger said, “The Howington case says nothing of the sort. In that case, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a judge may not order the transfer of a prisoner indicted for murder from one county jail to another county jail without the concurrence of the Sheriff. The Howington case has nothing to do with Municipal Court prisoners who are never taken to the county jail.”

Conger cited Georgia statute, O.C. G.A., Section 42-4-1, which provides that sheriff’s are the jailers of the counties, and “…chiefs of police are the jailers of the municipal corporations and have the authority to appoint other jailers…”

“So what we have here in Bainbridge, Wiley, is a Municipal Court acting within its jurisdiction, and a chief of police acting within its statutory authority as jailer for the City,” Conger wrote in the Wednesday’s letter. Conger also said he doesn’t understand the sheriff’s offer to accept city inmates for no charge “pending legal resolution of this matter.”

“What legal resolution are you referring to?” Conger wrote.

Conger said the contract with the City of Pelham is not exclusive, meaning that Bainbridge hasn’t promised to send them any inmates, but simply agreed on the terms if the city decides to send its inmates to Pelham.

“The city deliberately made its contract with Pelham non-exclusive, which means the city can enter into another contract or contracts with other jails, including yours,” Conger wrote. “The chances of that happening will be much greater by good faith discussions about what will be fair to the taxpayers. However, the prospect of an agreement is not aided by letters demanding that the city quit doing what it has every right to do.”