The need for a new jail was one of the topics that came up during the recent roundtable discussion on the county’s drug problem hosted by the Bell County League of Women Voters.
Public official leading the discussion were Pineville Mayor Scott Madon, Middlesboro Mayor Rick Nelson and Bell County Jailer Gary Ferguson.
Ferguson explained in detail what drug addicted inmates go through when they’re booked while still high and also spoke about the lengths they go to try and feed their addictions while incarcerated.
Angela Jackson raised the point that a new jail could ease overcrowding and together with a long-term rehabilitation facility would allow drug inmates time to at least come down from their highs before being released.
“Gary has the worst problem with the revolving door at the jail. Sometimes they’re not even there 24 hours when they’ve committed serious drug abuse. If you can’t keep a person in jail for 30 or 36 hours they’re not going to dry out and they’re not going to be susceptible to what you have to say,” she said. “I know it sounds impossible to get a new jail and new drug treatment center, but we have to think ‘What can we do to get this done?’ You have to sell the bonds and you have to have a tax, but it’s worth it in our community to have a place. Now the people who get arrested have no time to clear their mind and think.”
Jackson elaborates in a letter to the editor which can be found on page A3.
Madon did his best to respond to the challenges of simply building a new jail.
“I’ve heard people say the county got money for a jail and didn’t build it, but I don’t think that’s the case,” he said. “My understanding is that they borrowed money to buy the property behind the current jail. They just didn’t follow that up with a bond issue to pay for building a new jail. Knox County is building one right now and I think it cost $32 million.
“A lot of people think that because the jail is Pineville we have something to do with it. But it’s owned and maintained by the county. What the (Judge-Executive Albey Brock) is concerned about is what happened in Leslie County and some other places. They built jails and had to have a pretty good sized tax increase to pay off those bond issues.”
Madon added that Ferguson has done a good job of changing the appearance of the current jail.
“The jail has gotten in on our theme of cleaning the community up. It’s been painted and Gary has that thing lit up like Fort Knox now. It looks good and you wouldn’t really know it was a jail just driving past it,” he said.
While Brock was not at the roundtable discussion, the Pineville Sun sat down with him to get his thoughts on the county’s drug issues and the possibility of a new jail.
“What many may have missed or don’t realize is that Bell County is the lead county in a nationwide litigation against the big pharmaceutical companies. The case is being heard in the Cincinnati federal circuit. If we prevail in that there will be a substantial sum of money that will come directly to the county,” he said. “We’ll look at what will be the best use of those funds as it applies to addressing the drug problem. Where it be in adding law enforcement, sponsoring programs that would better educate youth — in my opinion that’s the only solution to the drug problem is to educate youth to not make a bad decision. The folks in our jail are there because they made a bad decision that probably led to more bad decisions.”
He also said that while there is a need for a long-term rehabilitation, it’s not up to local government to make it happen.
“I fully recognize the nationwide drug problem that we’ve got and recognize the need for long-term rehabilitation. Unfortunately, that’s not local government’s constitutional charge. In order for us to get involved directly with rehabilitation, we would have to prevail in court against those pharmaceutical companies,” Brock said.
As far as a new jail, the judge said it just isn’t economically feasible for the county without tripling property taxes.
“We here in Bell County have a 13 cent per $100 property tax. Compare that to our neighbor Harlan County, where they have a 43 cent tax rate,” Brock said. “A new jail is constructed of concrete, metal and wire. The old jail is constructed of concrete, metal and wire. Do we want to make our inmate population more comfortable and raise our property tax rate by 300-percent? If that’s the case then I’m all ears, I just need to hear it from the public and I’m not at this point.”
Brock went on to say there were some misnomers about jails, including: there is no guarantee that the county would be allowed to house extra state prisoners if a new jail is built; there are not state or federal grants available for the construction of new jails; and that Bell County would not be allowed to house federal inmates because only jails located near federal courthouses are allowed to do so.
Ferguson said the jail currently houses about 87 state prisoners.
Brock said even with that income, the jail loses over $1 million per year.
“Right now the jail loses $1.1 million per year. Out of its $1.6 million budget, $1.1 million comes directly out of the taxpayers’ pocket,” he said. “Building a new jail isn’t economically feasible for Bell County unless we want to triple our property tax rate in order to serve the debt that would be required.”