Jailhouse blues 

‘Yakity-yak' from the pols.

Money's bad.

Judges mad.

‘Tough's' gotten us

by the ... wallet 

Perry County Sheriff Scott Montgomery currently presides over one of the worst jails in Arkansas. Earlier this year, a state oversight committee noted:

“The county has more inmates than the jail's design capacity can accommodate. Inmates in excess of 12 are sent to other county jails for housing. As a result, the county has 773 outstanding warrants that cannot be served because the jail is too small. This means that people who should be in jail are on the streets.”

In fact, Sheriff Montgomery says that's not exactly the case. Instead of sending prisoners to other counties when his jail's capacity of 12 has been reached, he admits he's been doubling — and at times almost tripling — his jail's legal capacity.

“We typically have 25 to 30 in there,” Montgomery says. “The ones who don't have beds sleep on the floor. The standards say we can't do that, but we space them out. And we give them double mattresses.”

Montgomery has been working for years to get a new county jail — one that would relieve the chronic overcrowding. Next month, he'll move his crowded prisoners into a brand new, 28-bed jail.

Is he happy? “Worried” would be a better word.

“This jail was out of compliance [with state standards] for several years, since way before I became sheriff in January 2007. People started working to get a new jail back in the early part of this decade.

“The first battle was over location. Nobody wanted the jail built near them. So the site they finally agreed on was here, next to our current one. I voted against it because of the site. We were limited in how big we could build it, and there's not much room for expansion.”

The next battle was over funding. In 2005, county officials asked for a tax that would generate $3 million for a new jail. Voters said no. In 2007, however, faced with increased residential crime, they did approve a jail tax of $1.3 million.

The result, in Montgomery's view, is a new jail that's already too small, with minimal room for expansion. He reflects, “We should have built a jail with 50 to 60 beds.”

At the same time, Montgomery says he understands the voters' dilemma. They're frightened by crime on one hand, and facing a harsh economy on the other.

“People are very concerned. Our thefts, right now, are sky-rocketing. I think that's because our economy's so bad. People are really struggling. And the more desperate people get, the more crime you have to contend with.”

Perry County's situation is a microcosm of the angst being felt across the state. In a conference room at the state Capitol last week, a crime victim, two police officers, and several county and state officials gathered to, essentially, wring their hands about the severity of Arkansas's lock-up crisis.

Shirley Simpson of North Little Rock, told the group that burglars had broken into her house two years in a row. “The police know who did it,” she said, “but there was no room for them in the jail.” She demanded more prisons and jails. “Think of us victims,” she said.

A county judge from northwest Arkansas told the group: “We're either going to keep prisoners in jail or repair county roads. That's the decision I've got to make.”



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