Sheriffs gather more info on possible East Ark. regional jail

Ed Hargate, with Magnolia Correctional Corp. of Mississippi, speaks at a meeting of regional sheriffs (7/23/2013 - photo by Times-Herald of Forrest City)

FORREST CITY (Times-Herald) - Sheriffs from around the region got information Tuesday morning on how the regional jail concept is handled in Mississippi, and also heard about the possibility of needing legislation to even consider a regional jail.

The meeting was attended by St. Francis County Sheriff Bobby May, Phillips County Sheriff Neal Byrd, Monroe County Sheriff Gary Henard, Cross County Sheriff J.R. Smith, Woodruff County Sheriff Stacey Barker and Ronnie Baldwin, executive director of the Arkansas Sheriff's Association. Lee County, the only other county in the First Judicial District, was not represented at the meeting.

Also attending was Ed Hargate, representing Magnolia Correctional Corp., based in Mississippi.

First, Baldwin said he had a lot of information to share with the group, including the fact that there are only about 80 regional jails in the country. A large concentration is in Virginia and West Virginia, and as it turns out, Mississippi also.

He said he has talked to a lot of people, and "Every time I'm talking to these people, they say, 'Have you got your enabling legislation in place?' I didn't know we needed enabling legislation. But after talking to folks in Minnesota, Tennessee, Missouri, West Virginia, Virginia, it may be we have to have some enabling legislation to go forward," said Baldwin.

Hargate was asked to speak, and said beginning in 1995, legislation was adopted that allowed cities and counties in Mississippi to contract with the state department of corrections to house inmates. The local authorities were also allowed to add to the facilities to house local prisoners.

Hargate said there are currently 15 regional jails in Mississippi. Also in Mississippi, they are all two-county operations.

"Of course, they could join several if they wanted to," said Hargate.

A sales tax to fund a bond issue is one way to pay for such a facility.

"We have to get the Quorum Court on board if you want to talk about sales tax," said May.

Baldwin added, "We've got five counties at the table today, with a possibility of six. I just see it as a problem to pass six sales taxes."

Hargate said there is another way, in which a private company builds the facility and the counties in the region contract with the company to pay a per diem on prisoners.

"We can actually do any part of the package you folks desire to do," Hargate said. "If the county decides it wants a private operator to own the jail and for the counties to pay per diem, then the company will own and operate the jail. On the other hand, if the county wants to own the jail, they can do a bond issue or a lease-buyback, whatever approach the counties want to take, we can work with you on that."

May said, "I think Mississippi really got ahead of the ball game," when it comes to regional jails.

Hargate added, "The regional jail concept is the best thing to ever happen to corrections in Mississippi."

May said he felt that a sales tax is the best option in the long run, and reminded everyone that he had tried to get a local sales tax passed that failed.

"Quite honestly, I don't think I ran a good campaign, though I worked hard," May said. "I don't think I really got the message across."

He said there was a lot of anti-tax feeling, but that wasn't all.

"Another issue is that when you start talking about a new jail, people get it in their mind that it's a hotel. A jail is a jail," he said. "It's concrete and steel. We know that, but I think the general public in their mind's eye, it's not what they want.

"I think where I messed up in my campaign, I emphasized too much, the condition of the jail, which as I found out the general public likes that. The worse the better," May continued. "So what I was doing, I was perpetuating their thoughts. I talked about how bad our jail was. What I should have done was emphasize that because the jail's so bad, we're having to put criminals back out on the street."

Barker said, "I'm having to fight my Quorum Court and county judge just to get up to standards."

Discussions are expected to continue.