(Connie Jo Discoe/McCook Daily Gazette)
It's highly unusual that a county Red Willow County's size continues to fund the neighbors' jails, according to Dan Evans of Lincoln, a field representative for the Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, Jail Standards Division.
Since 1983, when Red Willow County's 16-bed jail in the sheriff's office was closed by the state because it did not meet fire code and staffing standards, Red Willow County has hauled its prisoners to Hitchcock County jail in Trenton, Frontier County jail in Curtis and Decatur County jail in Oberlin, and for high-security prisoners, to Phelps County jail in Holdrege and Dawson County jail in Lexington. Red Willow contracts with Hitchcock, Frontier and Decatur counties for jail beds whether or not they're occupied, and Red Willow County assumes the cost of prisoner transportation and liability both ways.
Considering prisoner, officer and public safety to and from McCook, Evans told commissioners, it's "way overdue for Red Willow County to take decisive action" about operating its own jail.
One option available to the county is the assumption of the City of McCook's 96-hour holding cells in the city's public safety center. The city is not including holding or jail cells in the new municipal facility it will build on the block of the former West Ward Elementary school at West Fourth and C.
According to state statute, incarceration of anyone arrested within Red Willow County -- whether by city police or county sheriff's officers -- immediately becomes the responsibility of the sheriff's office.
Red Willow County has access to the city's holding cells to house a prisoner for up to 96 consecutive hours (weekends do not count), but after that time, sheriff's officers must transport a prisoner to a more permanent jail facility.
McCook's holding cells cannot hold male and female prisoners at the same time; female prisoners must be housed out-of-sight and out-of-sound of male prisoners.
If the county assumes operation of the 96-hour cells, neither would it be allowed to have females and males together, Chris Harrifeld, another field representative for the Crime Commission, told commissioners. "You can have six females or six males, but you can't mix-and-match them," Harrifeld said.
Evans added, "You can have either/or, not both at the same time."
Harrifeld told commissioners that the city's 96-hour holding cells are up to state standards, and anticipates he'll find nothing to the contrary during an annual inspection Tuesday (today). "If the city's up to standards, then the county would be up to standards too," Harrifeld said.
Evans said that he thinks the transition from city to county could be a "seamless change," without shutting down the facility for the change of ownership and operation.
Commission Chairman Earl McNutt asked if the county can take possession, keep the doors open and continue to operate the jail. Evans said the state wouldn't prohibit that. "The state wouldn't present any stumbling blocks," he said.
Evans said that staffing of the 96-hour holding facility would require -- "barebones minimum" -- six full-time-equivalent employees 24/7. " You'll immediately want 5-6 well-trained staff ready to roll," he said.
Evans said he does not like a joint dispatcher/jailer position. "A dispatcher can be a jailer," he said, but continued, "It was a good accommodation 30 years ago, but only a handful (of jails) are still doing that."
Thinking about the risk to a dispatcher/jailer in a situation or confrontation with a difficult prisoner, with or without other prisoners nearby or involved, Evans said, "It causes me sleepless nights. The liability's exceptionally great."
Evans recommends that, if the county decides to assume operation of the holding facility, that it reduce risk and liability as much as possible, making prisoner checks more frequently that once every hour and installing/monitoring more surveillance cameras. Implementing video visitation technology would reduce/eliminate searches of visitors and prisoners and eliminate the smuggling of contraband, he said.
"And identify your 'heavy hitters' immediately. Classify them and haul them off," Evans said and added, with a grin, "Take them to Bryan Leggott." Leggott is the sheriff in Hitchcock County.
The county's assumption of the city's 96-hour holding cells would still not free the county from the safety risk and liabilities associated with hauling prisoners; and prisoners of the opposite sex would have to be transported immediately.
Hauling prisoners saves money over the operation/construction of a jail facility, Evans admitted, and it was definitely an issue in 1983, when the county chose to close its jail instead of spend money to bring its existing jail up to code.
But, he said, the mathematical laws of probability may some day catch up with Red Willow County.
Another option that the county has is assuming operation of the city's 96-hour holding cells and, over time, transforming it in a full-service jail.
"If Red Willow County likes the jail business," Evans said, "there's lots of room there (at the public safety center location) for expansion. There's room there for a remodel."
A full-service jail would require adequate staffing, visiting (two hours a week), a secure exercise area, library facilities, a GED program.
However, Evans said, with another grin, "If I could spend your money ... the best-case scenario would be to start new. You'd get more bang for your buck ... a more bullet-proof, efficient jail ... a jail custom-designed to fit the needs of your community. You will have a jail for a 30-40 life cycle."
Evans said that the most successful jails they've seen are built from scratch. "They function extremely well," Evans said. A low rate of successful suicides during incarceration in the state's jails can be attributed in part to the efficient design and effective staffing of new jails, Evans said.
After meeting with commissioners, Evans, Harrifeld, Sheriff Gene Mahon and Chief Deputy Alan Kotschwar walked to the north end of the block on which the courthouse sits, to view the two lots that the county owns north of the courthouse.
Both Evans and Harrifeld were amazed at the nearly quarter-block piece of property that the county could build upon if the owners of two rental properties (in between the two lots that the county owns) were to sell them to the county at some point.
"Most failed bond elections for jails have to do with location," Evans said. "Ninety-five percent of the successes are right by the courthouse. It seems local folks want it (a jail) by the courthouse."
There are no jail standards restricting a jail's proximity to schools and/or churches, Evans said.
The cost to build a new jail is estimated at $100,000 per bed, Evans said. Thirty beds -- as Red Willow County considered five years ago -- would cost $3 million to build, he said.
Evans said, "A jail is a big ticket item. It's complex to plan and design, and it's expensive to operate."
Staffing is the expensive, crucial part, he said. The design of a new jail ensures that the staff is in charge, he said, adding, "You can't trust inmates to stay out of trouble."
In jails without proper staffing, inmates are on their own, Evans said, and trouble and suicides or suicide attempts can result. "The public outcry is unforgiving. The demand of the state is that jails are properly staffed," he said.
McNutt wondered if the county's original jail -- in the sheriff's office on the alley behind the courthouse -- could be revived and used again, even as a 96-holding facility. He asked Evans and Harrifeld to inspect "the antique" with an eye toward updating.
Sheriff Mahon said the jail was built in either 1913 or 1927.
Evans told McNutt that he could "probably scratch that option off your list," but he agreed they'd look at it.
Sheriff Mahon told Evans and Harrifeld that one of the original jail's cell is used "very short-term," maybe for one-half hour to a couple hours, most often prior to a prisoner's appearance in court.
Evans said that Colfax County has an even smaller area that the sheriff also uses, infrequently, as a "court-holding" cell, and it is inspected as a "24-hour lock-up."
On the ground floor, the old Red Willow County jail has four four-person cells, for a maximum of 16 prisoners. Upstairs, the building has one solitary confinement room with a toilet and two mirror-image "dorm cell rooms" with shower facilities.
Past sheriffs and their families lived in the front half of both floors of the courthouse, and the sheriff's wife cooked for the prisoners.
Evans said that the two-story design, combined with fire codes and staffing requirements, were probably all factors in the closing of the facility in 1983.
Evans said he was not going to call McNutt and tell him that "a little paint, a little Clorox in the toilets and some staffing" would put the county back in business in the old jail.
However, Evans said, half in jest, "I would come and clean and paint ... anything to get your guys away from transporting prisoners."
McNutt and McCook City Manager Kurt Fritsch, who attended the commissioners' meeting Monday morning, said that no decision or agreement has been made by either the county or city regarding the transfer of the 96-holding cells to county ownership.
Fritsch said, "We want to make it available, but there's been no discussion."