Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

TOP STORY > >County will pick site for its new jail

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Where to put the new Lonoke County jail — answering that question is the next challenge facing the Lonoke County Quorum Court, now that voters have agreed to a dedicated one-year, countywide penny sales tax to pay for it.

Voters on May 20 approved the tax, although only by a margin of 438 votes—or 6 percent of the votes cast.

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.
As for locating the jail, “I guarantee I’ll lose some friends on this controversial thing,” said County Judge Charlie Troutman.

By statute, the county judge is in charge of county buildings and this county judge has a history of making decisions and plunging ahead, as evidenced by the renovation of a county courthouse annex across the street from the court house and the rental and remodeling of a new courtroom when Gov. Mike Beebe approved a third circuit division in Lonoke County that began last July.

But on the jail issue, “I’m going to try to pass the buck on that to get a little guidance from the quorum court,” he said Thursday. He said the county had tried, unsuccessfully so far, to buy the land north of the existing jail. If the jail were built on that same block, parking would continue to be a problem and some city residents would be unhappy, he said.

Some folks would like the jail to be more centrally located in the county, but Troutman said that prisoners must be tried in Lonoke County court, and for logistical reasons, the jail should be nearby, he said.

Troutman said he suspected the new jail would be built within Lonoke city limits.
The judge said he hopes to build the jail next year, perhaps with the help of inmate labor. Lonoke County will begin collecting its dedicated jail sales tax—an estimated $5.5 million to $6 million — Oct. 1 this year through Sept. 30, 2009, Troutman said.

The first proceeds will come to the county through the state near the end of December.
The jail is modeled on the Dallas County Jail, built a few years ago using correction department inmate labor, and the jail tax was sold to voters with the idea that inmates would do much or most of the construction.

The county, however, has no guarantee of that labor or its availability. Troutman said neither he nor JP Larry Odom, who promoted the plan, had conferred with the correction department about the availability of such help.

The correction department’s Act 309 program makes available to cities and counties trustee-type inmates approaching their prison release dates.

“We do have inmate construction crews that do our construction, a limited number,” correction department spokesman Dina Tyler said Thursday.

“We’re pretty much using everyone we got building a special needs unit at Malvern,” she added. “This is something that would take discussions with the department. Right now, it’s just an idea.”

She said the Dallas County sheriff had negotiated with the department and used the Act 309 inmates to build the jail.

The city of Lonoke lost its Act 309 program over misuse of inmate labor by former Police Chief Jay Campbell and former Mayor Thomas Privett, but Lonoke County’s Act 309 program continues in good standing.