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Oklahoma: County jails cheaper than for-profits

The Daily Oklahoman
March 1, 2003
Grady County seeks way to pay for jail
Mac Bentley - Staff Writer

Chickasha - Grady County commissioners are scraping to plug a financial hole at the county jail complex until they can find more state prisoners.

The four-story jail opened in November next to a minimum-security jail annex that opened five months earlier. The two were financed by 13.5 million in revenue bonds.

Now the county is paying a monthy bill of about 225,000, including bond payment, with little help from outside inmate contracts, which were expected to make the venture viable.

The Grady County Criminal Justice Authority is expected to meet next week after failing to gather a quorum for its scheduled meeting Thursday. The date and time of the meeting have not been decided.

"I think we should maybe have something a little more concrete from the DOC (Corrections Department) to act on," said Jack Porter, a county commissioner and jail authority chairman.

He said he's hoping the Corrections Department will contract to house more prisoners in Grady County.

Corrections spokesman Jerry Massie said agency and county officials have discussed the matter. While the department isn't making any assurances, it's cheaper to house prisoners in county jails than in private prisons, where nearly 5,500 state prisoners are kept, he said.

The county has about 180 inmates, Sheriff Stan Florence said. They're in three buildings, including the original jail, that have a capacity of 311. Of those inmates, 40 are from the Corrections Department, with 20 more on the way, Florence said.

Porter said the county has been negotiating to receive more from the Corrections Department.

The state's prison population is 22,961; as of Monday, 404 of those were housed in county jails.

"I think within a couple of months, we're going to be in pretty good shape," Porter said. "But we (the county) are going to have to supplement this thing for a while. There's just no way around it. We're just going to roll up our sleeves and do our best."

The county doesn't generate enough revenue to pay the 225,000 monthly bill - which includes a bond payment of about 115,000 - without using the surplus from the bond sales. The surplus is about 800,000, Porter said. He said he figures the county could make it through the summer.

Porter said construction delays figured heavily in the jail budget problem.

The jail originally was scheduled to open in February 2002, which would have given the county about nine months to get the jail operational and to attract contract inmates before bond payments started in November.

"We should have been in the jail about six months before we started making bond payments," Porter said. "It looks bad right now, but this is the stuff anybody cranking up a new jail has to go through. The difference is we had bond payments while doing it.

Porter said he's often asked why the county built such a big jail.

A half-cent sales tax proposal to build a smaller jail was rejected by county voters. The county had to do something, Porter said, or the existing jail would have been shut down by state authorities. A panel of residents recommended the bond sales route, but the only way to repay the bonds would be to build a jail large enough to include contract inmates.

"It was kind of a catch-22," Porter said. "Anyway, by the time this jail gets paid for, we're going to need it" for county inmates.

Porter said the four-story jail has administrative offices on the first floor, and cell blocks on the second and third floors. The top floor is a shell, to be custom-built for whoever needs the space - federal, state or county authorities.

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