Another 40 beds needed as arrests keep mounting

Long-term planning starts to expand county jail

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JASPER - Walker County Sheriff Nick Smith is working on long-term plans - possibly stretching for several years - that could one day result in a $1.5 million, 40-bed dorm expansion at the Walker County Jail to relieve current overcrowding. 

"This is not a conversation people want to hear or that people want to discuss, but it is something that we have to lay out plans for. We can't continue to ignore a problem that exists with jail overcrowding," Smith said Wednesday. 

Smith and Nick Key, director of operations for the Sheriff's Office, reviewed tentative plans for an additional, separate building, which have been discussed since August. They noted they are now actively seek grants for the project, with at least one meeting already scheduled with a grant consultant. 

However, Smith repeatedly emphasized this was a long-term plan that was not going to happen "today, tomorrow or even next year," but early planning needed to be started now due to pressures being seen today. He noted it could even stretch long enough into a possible second term for Smith, or into the term of a new sheriff.

"It's really just a plan at this point. Last year I reached out to an architect company to come down and evaluate what we had and draw us out some plans of what it would look like to add some additional beds so we can up our number of population."

CMH Architects in Hoover is the architecture firm. Smith, who was once police chief in Cordova, knew them as they worked on the Cordova City Jail.

"You know, this jail is only rated to hold 280. Today, we are at 340," he said Wednesday, most of which he said have been serious crimes. A survey a few days ago showed only about a couple of dozen who could possibly be considered, on "a slight possibility" theoretically, to let out for less serious misdemeanor crimes. 

"When I first came into office in 2019, we had 353 inmates. We were able to get that number down to a manageable number for quite some time," Smith said. 

Smith said he had asked then for Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, for assistance. "A lot of the problem was the (state) prisons were not taking our inmates as often and as fast as they should," he said. After Reed intervened with phone calls, state prisons were taking prisoners from the jail on a weekly Monday rotation. 

His office also worked with judges and Walker County Circuit Clerk Susan Odom to make sure people were not in the jail just because they couldn't make bond and for some other circumstances. As a result, the numbers were brought down to 240 to 250, he said. 

However, with the coronavirus reappearing, numbers have started rising again as state prisons have been more reluctant to take inmates from the county jail, only taking four or five at a time from various counties, Smith said. Currently about 60 inmates in Jasper need to be transferred to state prison.

Also, a number of local inmates also have high bonds that they cannot make. "Some of the criminal offenses they committed, they deserve those high bonds," he said.

Smith noted in 2019 his office arrested 2,044 people. "We're on pace to double those numbers next year," he said. 

A total of 53 drug search warrants were executed by the department for all of last year. Halfway through 2020, 48 have already been executed, and was at 50 by Wednesday. Drug related arrests last year stood at 495, but is already at 721. Smith predicts that could hit 1,000 for all of 2020.

At the same time, those efforts have decreased property crimes by about 30 percent, he said. 

"Safety of not only the inmates but the jail staff is important to me," he said. 

He noted many people complain about "revolving doors" at jails, in terms of prisoners being released and coming back. The jail can only house so many people, and adding space would prevent pressure to release some prisoners to make room as deputies continue to arrest others. 

"We're not going to stop enforcing the law. We're not going to stop arresting people," Smith said. 

Added to problems is dealing with the pandemic. Officials have had separation in the jail, and testing was performed for all the inmates. Only one inmate, who had been released anyway, got back a positive test. A few on the staff tested positive, although all are well except for one who is almost about ready to come back to work. 

Also, the sheriff said many people don't understand that he also houses municipal felony prisoners from around the county, as well as arrests made by Alabama State Troopers in Walker County, and some warrants going back years are sometimes executed. Adding to the 2,044 the department itself arrested, he said the jail probably housed more than 3,000 inmates in 2019 with everyone factored in. 

Smith said all other counties are also experiencing similar problems in their jails, especially with the virus. 

He and Key said one extra 3,400-square-foot building, not connected the main jail, would basically be added to the south end of the jail property, although the property would blend with the rest of the jail. The dorm area itself would be 1,422 square feet, while regulations mandate at least 1,400 square feet.

Key said access to the separate building would not be a problem and that it would still be in a fenced-in area. 

"You can't go side to side, but you can go back," Key said, pointing out it would be where J&K Lumber used to be. "The jail was designed to build upwards, but throughout the years, because of just the building settling and some delays, it would compromise the integrity of the building to continue to go up. We don't know if the existing structure could support the weight of another floor. So the only option is to go backwards." 

However, with the new building, it is possible to put other additions on top of it, or maybe beside it, he said. 

Key said it may also be easier to find grant funding for a new building not physically attached to an existing building. 

No provision has been made for any select grouping of inmates to be housed there, although something could be decided later on, such as federal prisoners or trustees. Smith said many options exist, but it has always been planned as a dorm for inmates.

"It is whatever works logistically after the structure is built," Key said. 

Key doesn't foresee staffing increases from the addition. 

Smith notes he is able to address the situation because the Walker County Commission has helped in upgrades with the jail, through cameras, monitors, locks painting and other needs.

"The jail looks 100 times better than it did a year and a half ago. I don't want to progress. We have to stay proactive," he said. 

The jail is close to being accredited, probably by next year after an inspection. "We're on the last phase," which takes two or three years to complete, involving about 650 policies to abide by, Smith said. Discretionary funds are being used, and work has been outsourced to a local attorney to finish up jail procedures and policies.

"You probably only have a handful of jails in this state that are accredited," he said.