Walker, Cullman counties agree to transfer state inmates

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The Walker County Commission on Tuesday approved a 12-month agreement for the Cullman County Jail to take some of the state prisoners that have been housed at the Walker County Jail due to overcrowding and safety reasons. 

District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis presided at the meeting, as Chairman Jerry Bishop was not present. 

County attorney Richard Fikes told the commission Tuesday the county jail is housing state inmates, as the state pays the county to house them. However, he said the jail is "overflowing" with inmates. 

"To help with the overflowing situation, (Sheriff Nick Smith) has reached an agreement with the Cullman County sheriff to house some of these state inmates," Fikes said. Walker County would still get the reimburse for the time period where they housed the inmates, and once custody is transferred, Cullman County will get the reimbursement from the state.

"We're not sending county inmates up there," Fikes said. "We're not paying Cullman County to house our inmates." He referred to an article in the Daily Mountain Eagle last week "that indicated maybe we were paying Cullman County. We're not. They get the state reimbursement once they get custody." 

The agreement states it can be extended for another year, and it can be ended on a 30-day notice. It notes once transfer has been made, Cullman County will be responsible for items such as health care, food and transportation, at no cost to Walker County.

However, Walker County will pay for the transportation to Cullman County. Each county will hold the other harmless for claims, liabilities, damages and expenses for the period when the other county didn't have the prisoners. 

Smith told commissioners he had reached out to Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry as Walker's 280-bed capacity facility had reached about 355 inmates overall, although he said he had gotten that down to 345 inmates. 

"It was overcrowded when I got there. We worked with the judges and the circuit clerk, and we were able to get that down to a manageable number, around 246. It was 265 for a long time," Smith said. "Then the pandemic came along, so now the state is only taking about five inmates per county per month." 

Currently about 50 to 60 state inmates are in the Walker jail, he said, adding he wanted the transfer for the safety of the local correctional staff and the inmates, and to ease overcrowding. He said Cullman can probably take 30 to 40 of the prisoners. 

County Administrator Robbie Dickerson said dates the agreement are to go into effect are on hold until the county hears final word from the state on a rate of pay, which has been proposed at $28 per inmate a day - a figure Smith has indicated recently is not worth the trouble compared to the safety and overcrowding factors. 

"It is my understanding that the agreement is on (Gov. Kay Ivey's) desk," Davis said.

He said the Association of County Commissions of Alabama and the Alabama Sheriffs Association, as well as the Alabama Department of Corrections, has worked hard on a solution concerning counties holding state prisoners "and taking the blunt of the state inmates that are supposed to be transferred on Day 31." Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are not being transferred, leading overcrowding and budget problems in county jails. 

Davis said numerous conversations have been held with Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, and state Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, to come up with solutions. 

"I want to personally thank the Cullman County Commissioner for agreeing to this," as well as Gentry for his approval, Davis said. 

County Attorney Eddie Jackson said as far as the court orders between federal authorities and state officials on what should be done with the state prisons, he gets the sense the state is going to "do what they're going to do, and if the feds get mad about it, they're just going to have to get mad, and we're stuck as a pawn in that game because we can't keep taking prisoners." 

Smith said he just wanted to take "a proactive approach" so that in six months the county would not have 400 prisoners in the jail. Jackson noted the county is trying to avoid turning all the state prisoners out in time, as no one knows what will happen between the federal officials and the state prisons.

"I think counties will be left to their own devices," Jackson said. 

Davis noted the state is proposing three new mega prison facilities, but he said it could be years down the road before they are operational. 

After Ivey declared a state public health emergency on March 13, the state Department of Corrections announced a 30-day moratorium on inmate intake to prevent COVID-19 from entering the prison population.

An April 2 proclamation allowed counties to release certain state inmates for time served on parole or probation violations.

On June 9, Ivey issued a proclamation stating that the DOC "must identify opportunities to resume intake to pre-COVID-19 levels as soon as practicable." In the meantime, "counties must cooperate with the Department with respect to the housing of state inmates."

State inmates are housed with the general population. Because of the lack of beds, some are sleeping on mats in open dorms rather than being assigned to cells. 

This summer, Smith announced a long-term plan to add 40 beds as part of a $1.5 million expansion. However, funding would need to be secured before the plan could become reality.

In brief actions Tuesday, the commission: 
 
• Heard from Dickerson that the Fiscal 2021 budget work session will be on Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 9 a.m.
 
• Heard from Dickerson employees will get flu shots on Thursday, Oct. 15. 
 
• Heard County Engineer Mike Short say the water line project at Brown's Bridge at Lost Creek has been completed and the switchover has taken place. A final inspection will be Thursday. 
 
• Heard no comments during a public hearing about the new transportation program being taken over by the Walker County Community Action Agency.