Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

TOP STORY > >Cabot hopes to get county jail

Leader staff writer

Despite the assertion by Lonoke County Judge Charlie Troutman that the new jail should be built in Lonoke near the courts, Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams still would like to see it built closer to the Cabot area where half the county’s population lives.

Williams has asked to be on the agenda for the June quorum court meeting to talk about the new jail. Since at least part of the estimated $5.5 to $6 million in revenue from the newly passed one-cent sales tax will have to be collected before the jail can be built, there is time to decide on a location. And since the tax will sunset after one year, it might be advantageous for the county and cities alike to pool their resources to run the new jail and close all the city lockups that are used for misdemeanor offenders.

“I don’t know if it will work,” Williams said, “But I do know that in 10 years from now, if everything continues like it has been, this city will be 35,000 and we will have the same eight-bed jail.

In addition to Cabot, Lonoke, England and Carlisle also have city jails where misdemeanor offenders are held.

Williams said he doesn’t know exactly how much it costs to operate the Cabot jail, but he does know that prisoners eat food from McDonald’s three times a day at a cost to the city of about $25,000 a year.

As for the problem of transporting prisoners to the court for hearings, Williams said camera connections between the jail and courtroom, like the one the city now uses, would make it possible to conduct some hearings without moving the prisoners from the security of the jail.

Lonoke County Sheriff Jim Roberson, who runs the jail, says he is not necessarily opposed to building the jail closer to Cabot, but he says it would be inconvenient for trials and it would cost more to transport prisoners.

“You can have first appearance in the jail, but you’ve got to have the trial in the courthouse,” the sheriff said, adding that his deputies take about 15 prisoners a week to the courthouse.

And although the Cabot mayor would like the jail built closer to his city, the sheriff said, “I’m sure the mayors of Carlisle and England think otherwise.”

Lonoke is in the middle of the county and therefore more convenient for everyone, he said.

As for the concept of building a regional jail and closing the city jails, Roberson was non-committal, saying he hadn’t given it too much thought but he would need to be convinced that it would work.

“I know Pulaski County is a regional jail and they haven’t had anything but trouble down there,” he said.

Where to build the jail is up to Lonoke County Judge Charlie Troutman, who says he knows the question is a controversial one that is sure to cost friendships whatever he decides.

The new jail is expected to hold 140 inmates to replace the existing 70-inmate jail, which is generally considered overcrowded, dark, dank and dangerous for both prisoners and jailers alike.

The judge said he hopes to build the jail next year possibly with the help of inmate labor provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction.

The sheriff said any extra money needed to run the new jail would come from the general fund where revenue is expected to be up because of increased property tax assessments.

But where the jail is built and where the money comes from to pay for running it is not his concern, he said.

The sheriff said his job is to make sure the people who need to be locked up are locked up and that they are treated in such a way that they can’t sue the county because of their accommodations.