Harris: Tax money needed to fund new jail facilities

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 27, 2003

At least one Pike County commissioner may use the plight of Pike County prisoners as a justification for tapping into 1-cent sales tax money currently approved for schools.

At Monday night's commission meeting, Commissioner Charlie Harris said the county was in dire need of revenue and may need additional funds in coming years to replace the Pike County Jail, which, he said was plagued by overcrowding and old age. The comments came during a discussion about whether or not to propose a 75-25 split of the yet-to-be-renewed 1-cent sales tax currently devoted to education.

A draft Legislative resolution has been circulated by the commission in recent weeks proposing a countywide referendum on whether or not 25 percent of the 1-cent tax revenue should be allowed to go to the county's general fund.

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Harris said the revenue gained by the commission from the school tax could be used to, among other things, pay for a new jail since the current facility may be in danger of being shut down by the federal government.

However, Sheriff Russell Thomas cautions against any worries about the status of the jail and said shutdown was unlikely. However, he said some concerns about the status of the facility may be legitimate.

&uot;They're probably concerned because of the age and spacing of the number of beds and the fact that the inmate population is growing,&uot; he said. &uot;In this day and age, we can't afford to overlook it.&uot;

Thomas said concerns about the status of the jail were nothing new, but currently, the jail is not at a crisis level.

&uot;We have been in this one for a long time,&uot; he said. &uot;It was 1957 when the jail was built, and it was built to address needs back then. We're now in 2003 and our needs are greater.&uot;

County attorney Allen Jones called the possibility of federal foreclosure &uot;a nightmare scenario.&uot;

&uot;The nightmare that every county has is that your old jail built in the 1950s or before, gets closed. Because of the increase in crime and higher populations, you have more people incarcerated,&uot; he said. &uot;The jail was just built for so many people back then. There have been some counties with nightmarish court orders coming down from the justice department, but that's nothing new. The commission has been talking about the jail for years and that's something that the commission is going to have to confront.&uot;

A spokesperson for the federal Department of Justice said there are currently no open investigations into the status of Alabama prisons or jails and no records of consent decrees requiring the shutdown of Alabama detention facilities. However, the conditions at Alabama's only women's penitentiary, Tutwiler Prison in Wetumpka, have been declared unconstitutional by a federal court.

Attempts to contact Pike County Commission Chair Karen Berry were unsuccessful.

Thomas was cautious about the possibility of Pike County tending to one of its most pressing criminal justice needs: the building of a new juvenile detention facility.

&uot;A juvenile facility is very costly,&uot; he said. &uot;That's something the commission would need to study.&uot;

The sheriff acknowledged the financial squeeze that may force the commission to ask Pike County's voters to endorse the 75-25 split of the 1-cent school tax money.

&uot;Money's short. Education and all the other branches of government need money too,&uot; he said.

Stephen Stetson can be reached at stephen.stetson @troymessenger.com.