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Jail expansion not a popular topic but needed nonetheless

Spending lots of local taxpayer money on major jail improvements is not a popular subject, but it’s something we have got to do in Chambers County. We can either come up with a plan locally or sit back and wait till a federal judge tells us we have to do it and at much greater cost than we expected. It’s a numbing reality, and it’s hard to come to terms with how much society has changed since 1950.

Now I’m not one of those who wants to go back to those good old days. I can remember a professor telling our class one day, “The good old days? Let me tell you about the good old days. There never were any.” He was having a bad day that day but made his point.

Major T.J. Wood of the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office talked about the need for a major jail construction project and what’s fueling it. In 1950, Chambers County built a new jail capable of housing and feeding up to 30 inmates. Even though there were more people in Chambers County at that time than there are now, there was no need for a bigger jail. In 1991, the county had a major expansion project to have a much bigger jail. We’ve since outgrown that much bigger jail and now need one that can accommodate up to 190 inmates at the time.

Why are so many people spending their nights in the gray bar motel? Wood said that illegal drug use is the root of most crimes that are being committed in the local area.

“People commit thefts to support their habit, or are high when they commit crimes and don’t know what they are doing,” he said. “No one ever woke up on their 16th birthday and said to themselves ‘I want to be an addict someday.’ Drugs affect so many families.”

There is a two-part plan to expand the county jail. In the first phase, an extension would be added to the present jail. When it’s finished and ready for occupancy, the inmates will be transferred there and much-needed improvements will be coming to the existing structure. The current estimate is that it will likely cost more than $5 million.

Something different not just from 1950 but from 1991 is the need for more jail space for women. In the 1991 expansion, space was provided for up to 16 women. At that time, it was thought they’d never need more than that. Well, today there’s anywhere between 20 and 25 women inmates in the county jail, Major Wood said. Some of them are being held on capital murder charges. It’s not good to have women who are being held on lesser charges in the same block with them.

Wood said that Sheriff Sid Lockhart has been in Montgomery this week providing input on a food bill that’s being researched.

There is some clamoring for legislation in the wake of the Etowah County scandal in which the sheriff was able to build a beach front condo on the Alabama coast from the money his department had made from food imbursement for the inmates. And there was nothing illegal about it.

Under Alabama law, the sheriff pays for the inmate meals. He receives payment from the state and from the cities in the county, providing the county is housing inmates from those cities.

For most Alabama sheriffs, this is hardly a windfall situation. What made the situation in Etowah County so lucrative is that the sheriff there has a 300-inmate jail, large enough to accommodate federal prisoners, who get more money for their meals.

“Our jail only houses local inmates,” Wood said.“The state gives us $1.75 per inmate per day to feed inmates. The cities give us $3 per day to feed their inmates.”

By law, the inmates are fed three times a day with their meals being supervised by a nutritionist.

In many cases, an inmate eats better when he or she is in jail. Wood said that some inmates gain weight in jail because of this and some lose weight because of a more healthy diet.

Who said that crime doesn’t pay?