By Jane Hill
NEW ALBANY – Stepping over four-by-sixes and around concrete blocks, Union County supervisors enjoy a luxury that few jail prisoners ever do: stepping in and out of a cell without bars.
Earlier this week, the county officials and Union County Sheriff Joe Bryant toured the shell of what will become the Prentiss County Law Enforcement Center in Booneville, comparing the floor plan of the facility under construction with initial drawings that have been submitted for a new Union County jail.
Memphis architect George Thomason, who was hired to design both facilities, said the tour will help him develop the final designs for the Union County jail and sheriff’s office complex.
County officials have designated an almost-4-acre site just off Carter Avenue and near the Union County Library for the new jail, which will also house the sheriff’s department, the justice courtroom and offices for the Justice Court judges.
The county wants a facility that will house between 80 and 85 prisoners with designated areas for both male and female prisoners, said board President and District 4 Supervisor Norman Treadaway. By building two-person cells, the county is trying to get extra jail capacity while keeping costs low, he said.
Completion of the project will relieve the county of the threat of liability for the conditions in its almost-50-year-old existing jail. For years Union County’s grand juries have condemned conditions in the jail, where plumbing and other utilities are in constant need of repair and do not meet federal prison standards.
The project also will give Union County operations some breathing and storage room by moving Justice Court proceedings away from the main courthouse complex.
The budget for the new facility is tentatively set at $2.4 million, Treadaway said.
The price tag for the Prentiss County facility, which will house both Prentiss County sheriff’s and Booneville police offices as well as the Justice Court offices, is about $2.2 million, without kitchen facilities or parking lot paving figured in, Thomason said.
Currently, supervisors say they are not considering building a juvenile detention component into the new facility.
Treadaway said the county will wait and see what the state Legislature plans to do about juvenile detention and the juvenile justice system. Of particular interest to county officials was a proposal made by Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove of building a regional juvenile detention facility in three regions in the state, but that proposal was changed in the legislative process.
Legislators have, however, voted in favor of building two state prisons for juveniles who are convicted as adults of felony crimes.
Federal law regarding prisons requires that juveniles be housed outside of “sight and hearing” of adult prisoners, an expensive proposition – both in construction costs and permanent personnel costs – for smaller counties that are having difficulty meeting federal standards for adult prisoners.
While some Northeast Mississippi counties have discussed a joint juvenile detention project, their discussions never bore fruit. Currently, Union County, along with many other counties in the region, pay a per-day charge for housing their serious juvenile offenders in detention facilities until court appearances. The most-used facilities in the region are owned by Lee and Pontotoc counties. Columbus’ juvenile detention facility also is used by the eastern and southern counties in the region.
Frugality and utility key
Supervisors have held off building a new jail for fear that voters would regard it as an unnecessary luxury for people who are being punished for breaking the law, said District 5 Supervisor James Bryson.
But the combined threat of a Justice Department mandate and lawsuits from prisoners protesting conditions in the existing jail caused the county to act, he said.
“The board would like to find a way to get what we want for the lowest possible price, but it has to be something that will last the county a good, long while,” Bryson said.
No plans are in the works to convert the old jail to a new use.
“The county will probably end up knocking it down,” he said.