Calhoun County officials say they’re working on a plan to alleviate overcrowding in the county’s packed jails, but time is running out on a solution this year.
The county can’t build or expand a jail without money. It usually can’t raise money without permission of the Legislature. And, with one-third of the 2019 legislative session over, there’s still no bill on the floor to raise that money.
“We have no way to pass anything without the legislative delegation giving us the right to do it,” said County Commissioner J.D. Hess.
Hess and other county commissioners have been in talks with the county’s lawmakers to hash out a solution for the jail facilities, which housed about 500 people last week, by The Anniston Star’s counts. According to the Sheriff’s Office website, the county jails were built to hold 370 people.
They’re likely to get more crowded as the year wears on. Inmate populations tend to peak in the summer,part of a rise in crime in warmer months. Last summer, the county’s inmate population hit a historic peak of 676 inmates, according to Sheriff Office numbers. Staff numbers, meanwhile, are low, with a little more than a half-dozen officers available for any one shift.
Former sheriff Larry Amerson remembers the last time inmates outnumbered guards 100 to one. Amerson got his start as a corrections officer in the county’s old 120-bed jail in the 1970s, when the jail was regularly filled to capacity. There was typically one officer in the jail with those inmates at any given time, Amerson said.
Amerson says he nearly became a hostage while working one of those shifts. Two inmates escaped from their cells and cornered him, he said, letting him go only after they realized none of the keys on his key ring matched the locks they needed to open.
“I hate to say it out loud, but when you’ve got 40 or 50 or 60 inmates to one officer, these things are easy for inmates to do,” said Amerson.
Overcrowding at that old jail led to a riot in 1981, in which inmates ripped toilets and radiators from the walls. That and other incidents led to the building of the current jail in the mid-1980s. But there’s scant evidence that a solution to current jail overcrowding will come anytime soon.
If the county hopes to build its way out of overcrowding, it will have to go through Montgomery. Alabama county commissions have little power to raise money on their own. Amerson is now technically Deputy Amerson, appointed by current Sheriff Matthew Wade to act as a lobbyist on jail issues.
“The county commission has a draft of legislation that they’re passing around,” said Amerson. He wouldn’t elaborate on what the draft bill contains.
Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, said chances of passing any bill to raise revenue are slim this year. One main reason, she said, is that the Legislature has already passed an increase in the state’s gas tax.
“I don’t think the delegation is going to support another tax increase at this time,” Boyd said.
Rep. K.L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, agreed.
“I don’t see an appetite for a tax increase from each of the other legislators,” he said. Jails are hard to sell even when they’re needed, he said
Boyd said she asked county officials to come back to lawmakers with a proposal that includes multiple options — but nothing that includes a tax increase.
It’s unclear what those non-tax options would entail, though Hess, the county commissioner, pointed out that the county accepts inmates from local cities.
“The way I feel about it, maybe we should let them care for their own inmates,” he said. “They’ve got newer jails than we do.”
The county last year leased Anniston’s city jail to house its growing contingent of female inmates. Asked if he wanted a similar situation with other cities, or a return of inmates to city jails, or some funding from cities for a larger jail, Hess said he was interested in discussing any of those options.
The clock is ticking. Thursday was the ninth day of the legislative session, which is limited to 30 days in session, typically spread out over about three months. There are already 705 bills awaiting consideration in this session.
The Anniston Star asked Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, if there is still time to pass a bill this year.
“That depends on whether it’s local legislation or not,” he said. County issues often get addressed in bills aimed at a single county, but Wood said those local bills typically have to be advertised for four weeks before a vote.
The other option is a statewide bill – change to law for all counties that would help Calhoun County out of its bind. Wood said he wasn’t aware of any statewide bill being proposed.
The session is expected to end in mid-June.