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Inmate housing a hot topic

Decatur County’s jail and prison stand to make money from housing state inmates, which are causing overcrowding problems at some detention facilities in Georgia.

Currently, 31 state inmates who have been sentenced to serve time are being housed in the Decatur County Jail, according to Sheriff Wiley Griffin. The County Prison, which has a contract with the Georgia Department of Corrections to house up to 225 state inmates, is also holding state inmates from Baker and Calhoun counties under contract, Warden Elijah McCoy said.

Articles appearing in the Feb. 2 and Feb. 16 editions of The Cairo Messenger detail overcrowding at the jail in neighboring Grady County, where state inmates and local, pre-trial detainees are kept together. According to the Messenger, Grady County Sheriff Harry Young is seeking options to relieve the overcrowding, including reductions in sentences and housing state inmates in other facilities.

The Messenger’s article quoted Sheriff Young as saying Decatur County officials are willing to house overflow inmates at a rate of $31 per inmate per day. The official minutes of Grady County Commissioners’ Feb. 1 meeting confirm Young’s $31 figure.

Warden McCoy said he had been approached by Grady County Jail officials and in reply, he had proposed a fee of $35 per day to house Grady’s already-sentenced inmates at the Decatur County Prison. McCoy said Georgia law prohibits him from housing persons awaiting trial at his prison.

According to McCoy, part of Grady County’s problem is that anyone sentenced in its courts wind up in the county jail if space cannot be found in the state prison system, as Grady County does not have an inmate work farm. However, if Grady County were to take McCoy’s offer, he would put those inmates to work, making them worth the $35 per day he would receive, he said.

However, as of Friday, McCoy was still waiting to hear what Grady County officials’ final decision is.

Sheriff comments on state inmates

Sheriff Griffin said Friday he was never involved in negotiations regarding Grady’s overflow and said he had an issue with housing state inmates at his own jail.

As of Friday, 114 people were at the Decatur County Jail and 35 of those—or 27 percent—were state inmates, with the remaining population made up of local detainees awaiting trial. State law allows for people who have been sentenced to state prison to be held in county jails for up to 15 days at the county’s cost. After 15 days has passed, the state reimburses counties at a rate of $22 per inmate, per day.

“At that rate, I’m losing money,” Sheriff Griffin said. “The average length of stay for a state inmate is 80 days. I have kept some for up to 576 days.”

The county jail does house a few female state inmates, in order to segregate them from male inmates at the prison, located across Airport Road from the jail, Griffin said.

“That many state inmates should not be in my jail,” Griffin said. “Citizens of this county have already paid taxes to the state, which is supposed to provide adequate housing for its inmates, which they are not doing. Taxpayers are paying twice to house state inmates here. It’s not fair; it’s wrong.”

Much ado about jail rates

The Sheriff said he would be willing to accept Grady County’s inmates at the jail, but only at a rate of $38, the same rate it had been charging to the City of Bainbridge before it began sending its municipal detainees to Pelham last year.

The Decatur County Jail has an official capacity of 177 persons and has safely held up to 212, Griffin said. He said the jail is set up to house different classifications of detainees and has the space for more.

Griffin said the $38 rate available to Grady County would not include a 10 percent add-on fee per prisoner to recoup the cost of housing them. County officials have said the true cost of housing someone at the county jail is closer to $50 per day. The 10 percent add-on is a local law approved by Decatur County citizens to recoup jail costs in lieu of being charged additional property tax, Griffin said.

The City of Bainbridge balked at the $38 per day rate plus the add-on fee, which was based on the cost stipulated by the original 1993 contract between the two local governments. Instead, city detainees who don’t make bail are now being sent to Pelham after being booked, and housed at a rate of $30 per day.

Bainbridge Mayor Edward Reynolds has said the city would revisit Decatur County’s standing offer after the Pelham contract has run for one year, which would be this July.

McCoy: Inmates have value

McCoy said he has the space for Grady’s inmates, but would have to buy new beds, linens and lockers if the prison began housing them. Part of that cost would be recuperated through the $35 rate over time.

McCoy said the state government only pays his prison $20 per inmate, per day. While he has petitioned the Department of Corrections for a higher rate, McCoy said he is satisfied with the current arrangement because Decatur County gets “the cream of the crop” of inmates. He explained that he gets to request prisoners with specific skills, such as electricians or plumbers, and then transport them to Bainbridge to do labor.

“Working our inmates the way we do has greatly benefited the county,” McCoy said. “We can construct buildings from the ground up and wire them. We perform all of the county’s maintenance and operate some of the equipment at the county’s landfill.”