As Arkansas grapples with handling its parolees and inmate population, county jails often are tasked with housing a number of state prisoners on top of their regular incoming detainees.
A number of counties in western Arkansas have resorted to alternative means of dealing with their inmates, such as signature bonds, ankle monitors, work-release programs and other measures. Detention facilities have a limited number of beds, and often jail administrators are forced to roll out floor mats and bedding materials to suit inmates’ needs.
Aside from the stress of keeping up with overpopulation, a high number of inmates in close-knit quarters can present a dangerous situation, not only for the inmates, but for the deputies assigned to take care of them, said Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck.
In a Times Record guest column published Jan. 19, Hollenbeck outlined the county’s dilemma in handling state inmates.
"Because the Parole Board is sending parolees back to prison at a higher rate than normal, the prisons now have no room. So the Department of Correction leaves their prisoners in our jail, creating overcrowding," Hollenbeck wrote. "Overcrowding forces us to make decisions on which of the bad guys to let out."
Figuring out which and how many inmates to release on signature bonds, ankle monitors or work programs can be an arduous task. The Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office has hired a director of inmate management to sift through 40 to 50 candidates a day. The candidates are limited to nonviolent offenders, with 15 to 20 regularly being released per day, said investigator Philip Pevehouse.
In a facility with 356 beds, 429 inmates were booked into the Detention Center as of 3 p.m. Wednesday; 194 of those inmates were from the state system. The number fluctuates, but the overcrowding issue is consistent, Hollenbeck said.
Jail overcrowding is a public safety issue, and one that needs to be addressed in a variety of ways, Hollenbeck said.
Last year, Crawford County booked 5,160 inmates, 3,100 of whom were released on signature bonds. The trend has continued this year, as 314 of the Detention Center’s 920 inmates since Jan. 1 have been released on signature bonds as of Tuesday, said Crawford County Sheriff Ron Brown.
The 88-bed Crawford County jail has been so overcrowded that officials have proposed the construction of a new, $20 million facility on a plot of land just outside the Van Buren city limits on U.S. 64. Crawford County voters will consider a three-quarters-percent sales tax to pay for a new jail during the May 20 primary election.
Brown said he has contacted jails in other counties to house his inmates, but often they are packed to capacity as well.
"We take each individual day, each individual case, and we evaluate it," Brown said. "Almost every misdemeanor is released now."
Officials from Logan and Franklin counties are discussing the possibility of a 150- to 200-bed bi-county jail, which would be the first of its kind in the state.
Logan County has a 34-bed facility in Paris; Franklin County has a 26-bed facility in Ozark.
Franklin County Sheriff Anthony Boen said as of Thursday, his jail had nearly 40 inmates booked, more than half from the state.
Jail deputies have put out extra floor mats to accommodate the excess inmates. Some state inmates parole out and do all of their time in the Franklin County jail, Boen said.
The prospect of a bi-county jail is interesting, but a lot of questions will have to be answered, Boen said.
"We’re kind of grasping at straws to try to come up with a solution," Boen said.
Another small facility in western Arkansas, the Polk County jail, also is experiencing overcrowding issues. Polk County Sheriff Mike Godfrey said his jail is designed to hold 25 people, but routinely houses 30 or more every day.
"I have a very small percentage of nonviolent offenders who are out on signature bonds. I have a small percentage of nonviolent offenders who I have allowed to go out on home monitoring, like your ankle monitors, and those are typically misdemeanor offenses that are nonviolent that I can allow to do home arrest instead of in-facility arrest," Godfrey said.
Godfrey said he is pushing the Polk County Quorum Court to consider the construction of a new jail. To prepare for the future, a new facility would preferably house 75 to 100 inmates, Godfrey said.
Right now, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office has about a $1.9 million backlog of outstanding warrants, spanning years. If there was room at the jail, deputies could serve many of those warrants, Godfrey said.
"I’m trying to do the best I can to let the citizens know what we want to build, why need to build it, how much it’s going to cost," Godfrey said. "Instead of just kind of saying, ‘We need a new jail,’ I’m trying to do a lot of preliminary work by getting the information out there."
One jail in western Arkansas has fared better than others. Earlier this year, the Johnson County Detention Center was housing about 80 inmates, but around late January and early February, the state Department of Correction took back about 30 of their inmates. The jail currently has about 60 inmates, which it’s designed to hold, said Johnson County Sheriff Jimmy Dorney.
"I’m not going to complain about it, because in two months we might be back in that boat," Dorney said.
County law enforcement, including members of the Arkansas Sheriffs Association, have been working closely with state officials to come up with a viable solution to overcrowding. Hollenbeck, who serves on the executive board of the Sheriffs Association, said all options need to be on the table.
"We certainly want to partner with (the state) and get suggestions, but we want them to recognize this as a problem," Hollenbeck said. "Let’s start talking about it."