It’s almost always quiet at Jacksonville’s city jail.
Behind sliding blue doors with bold white lettering, 54 beds wait for the next alleged shoplifter or drunk driver. There’s no graffiti on the walls, few scratches on the stainless-steel toilets and a faint smell of fresh paint instead of the gym-sock smell so common in other jails.
It’s also largely empty. When Chief Marcus Wood took a reporter on a tour Wednesday, not a single inmate was there.
“It’s not unusual to have less than five in here,” he said.
Twelve miles away, roughly 470 inmates live in Calhoun County Jail cells that county officials say were built for about 370. That’s down from last summer, when the jail population hit an all-time peak of 676. Inmates are still feeling the effects of a space shortage.
“They’re overcrowded. They’re sleeping on the floors,” said Anniston resident Danielle Hawkins, whose son is in the jail.
As Calhoun County’s leaders continue to look for solutions to the county jail’s overcrowding problem, the empty cells in city jails have not gone unnoticed. Local leaders remain tight-lipped about what solutions they’ve got on the table, though some hint that debates about city and county burden-sharing are at the heart of their search for a solution.
“It’s going to take everyone sitting down and sharing, equitably, the cost,” said Larry Amerson, former Calhoun County sheriff, who’s now a registered lobbyist for the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office. Attempts to reach current Sheriff Matthew Wade for comment were unsuccessful.
In the details
Calhoun is the only county in Alabama where the local sheriff’s office has its own lobbyist, according to state records. When Wade appointed Amerson to the role earlier this year, it was clear that finding a fix for the jail’s problems was at the top of the agenda.
In the past year, the jail has seen several attacks by inmates — some on officers,some on fellow inmates.Three inmates escaped briefly in September. County officials have cited overcrowding and understaffing as contributors to some of those problems. The county has tried some local solutions, including modest pay raises to attract more jail staff andsentencing reviews to shrink the jail population.
For bigger fixes, though, the county was depending on the Legislature, which among other things can give the county money, or empower the county to raise its own money, for construction or new programs. But when the legislative session came to a close in May, there was no new legislation for Calhoun County’s jail.
“It was, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to do something, but the devil’s in the details,’” Amerson said. Lawmakers came close to releasing proposed legislation, he said, but an inability to agree on specifics kept them from releasing it.
Neither lawmakers nor Amerson seem willing to talk in detail about what that proposed legislation would have held — though some public officials hinted that the county wants cities to pitch in more toward that goal.
“Hypothetically, if there were a county-wide sales tax to pay for a jail, the cities would say, ‘that’s not fair, because we’re paying too much of this,’” Amerson said. “You’d see some disagreement.”
Amerson was quick to note that the county-wide sales tax in his analogy was just a hypothetical. But it’s unclear what other jail-building options might have been on the table, and it’s unclear what cities might be able to offer, other than money and jail space.
TV dinners, burritos
Calhoun County has already consolidated two of its biggest jails. Last year, faced with a growing number of female inmates, the county took over Anniston’s city jail, through an agreement with the city, and turned it into a women-only facility.
There are cells in otherlocal cities that remain unused. Capt. L.G. Owens of the Oxford Police Department told The Star that Oxford has around 30 cells in its city jail, though the jail rarely has more than 10 to 15 inmates at a given time.
But sharing those cells — if that’s indeed on the table — wouldn’t necessarily be easy. Wood said that with the staff he has in Jacksonville, jail employees can watch only around 20 inmates.
The city has two jail staffers, working two eight-hour shifts, Wood said. On the third shift, patrol officers and dispatchers check in on inmates. Lacking a full kitchen, the staff serves inmates TV dinners for most meals, with burritos for breakfast.
Wood said no one’s asked him to take on more inmates. But if they did, he said, it would take time to recruit the staff he needed. And there are reasons the Jacksonville jail is so empty — most notably a municipal court ruling, reached in agreement with civil rights groups, that requires the city to allow most small-time offenders to sign themselves out of jail without putting up a bond.
“We can bring shoplifters in from Wal-Mart, and they can sign out and be back at Wal-Mart before we’re done with the paperwork here,” Wood said.
Whatever lawmakers come up with, it’s likely the Sheriff’s Office will have to make it at least to 2020 with the jail it has. There’s talk among lawmakers of a special session later this year to find a way to ease overcrowding in state prisons. But it’s unlikely county jails will be part of the discussion.
“That would have to be in the governor’s call for the session,” said Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston. “I don’t think it would be possible without that.”
Bobby Timmons, lobbyist for the Alabama Sheriffs Association, said there’s a chance the special session could make things worse for overcrowded jails. Sheriffs say that’s what happened in the last round of prison reform, when lawmakers lessened punishments for parole violators, sending more inmates to county jails for “dips” into incarceration instead of returning them to prison.
“I don’t want sheriff’s offices to be a catch-all for everything,” he said.