Friday, December 09, 2005

Despite court order, county jails again packed with state inmates

Montgomery Advertiser
Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Despite a 2003 court order aimed at moving state inmates out of jampacked county jails, many of the county lockups are again busting at the seams with convicts who are supposed to be sitting in a state prison.

This month, county jails held 1,299 inmates considered ready for transfer to prisons, including more than 800 who had been there more than 30 days — the legal limit the state can leave them with a county.

Before the court order, the number of state inmates in county jails beyond the 30-day grace period hit 2,800. After the order, with stepped-up paroles and inmate transfers to private prisons, the number dropped to zero.

But now the prison system is at more than double capacity, with 27,000 inmates, and the backlog in jails is growing again. Counties get reimbursed only $1.75 a day from the state for the average $30 it costs them to hold each inmate, and many counties are frustrated with the state. But there is little they can do.

The court order allows county jails that have inmates held beyond the 30-day limit to drop off up to 25 inmates a day, and up to 100 a week, at the prison system, with 72-hours notice. But when the prison system says it doesn’t have a bed available, that provision has not been pushed very hard by many counties.

Baldwin County had the most state inmates backlogged so far this month, with 96. Chief Deputy Larry Milstid said his jail has resorted to transferring 25 inmates a week to the prison system. But he said he had a good relationship with the Department of Corrections and “maybe we haven’t been as aggressive as we should be. ...We’re going to have to keep this up.”

Counties also don’t want to be slapped with lawsuits, said Bobby Timmons, executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association.

“Instead of putting handcuffs on inmates, we put handcuffs on the system,” said Timmons.
Prisons spokesman Brian Corbett said his department isn’t trying to shift the burden onto jails — but there’s just no room.

He pointed out that between Nov. 10 and Dec. 2, a three-week span, 660 inmates entered the prisons from county jails, but that only reduced the backlog at the jails by 28 inmates — proof that inmates are being sentenced at a rate that outpaces the system’s capacity.

“That number exemplifies the very large number of inmates coming in and the small number exiting the system,” Corbett said.

But the situation at the prisons has stirred little sympathy.

“There’s no county that has extra money laying around for its jails either. It’s ridiculous for the Department (of Corrections) to look at us and say, ‘You have to keep them in jails,’” said Sonny Brasfield, assistant director of the Alabama Association of County Commissions.

State prisoners also are filling jails at rates that differ from one county to the next. Some counties, like Baldwin, hold dozens, while others deal with a handful or none. As of Dec. 1, seven counties had no state inmates and several more were still in the single digits, according to figures compiled by the county commissions group.

For example, the Montgomery County jail had only four inmates who had spent more than 30 days in it.

“We’ve just always had a good working relationship with DOC. I don’t have another explanation,” said Col. Gina Savage, director of detention for Montgomery County. She said maybe the fact that her jail sits so close to Kilby prison, where all state inmates are processed, helps the county purge itself of inmates.

Coffee County Sheriff Ben Moates, who has nearly 40 inmates ready for transfer, said the backlog has taken a toll on his officers and the inmates.

“We don’t have many officers helping with the overcrowding situation,” he said.

Moates added that keeping city inmates is more beneficial, because the jail is reimbursed $15 per inmates — not the paltry $1.75 paid by the state.

Corbett denied that the prison system picks and chooses among counties. “We talk with each county on a daily basis, at least on a weekly basis, and assess the needs of counties on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Corbett said a long-term solution is desperately needed. He said the prison system is hoping suggestions by a governor-appointed task force on prison overcrowding will help resolve the situation.

If not, Brasfield said, counties will be stuck paying the staggering costs of housing inmates.

The prison inmates at Baldwin County alone cost the county $2,688 on the single day of Dec. 1.

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