Should Red Willow County build its own jail?

Friday, November 5, 2004

Twenty-one years after the closing of the Red Willow County Jail, the time has come to face up to the county's need for new jail facilities. It once was good business to contract for space in other area jails, thereby avoiding the cost of building and maintaining a jail in Red Willow County.

But those days may have passed. Now, the county spends $300,000 a year to contract for space in other jails, and that doesn't include the costs of transportation and the time of deputies who do the driving.

With the cost of gasoline rising and jail space in other counties at a premium, the county commissioners took the right step Monday when they started the process of selecting a firm to do a jail study.

The commissioners will interview at least two firms, with the intention of having one do a detailed study. The study is required before the Jail Standards Board of the Nebraska Department of Corrections will approve construction of a jail facility.

It will cost some money to do the study -- with ball park figures of $25,000 mentioned -- but it will be worth it to determine whether the jail would be a wise investment for the county and its citizens.

Sheriff Gene Mahon, who has been the county's chief law enforcement officer since 1987, says the jail situation has changed in recent years, mainly because of the limited jail space available and the higher cost of gasoline.

But a third factor is the potential for the county jail to be used to house prisoners from other areas. Among the major users of county jail space is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which contracts for cells to hold violators of immigration laws.

The jail study needs to look at all sides of the issue, paying close attention to cost of construction and operation. Current costs -- of boarding and transporting prisoners to other jails -- also needs to be studied in detail, as does the potential to derive income from leasing space to the immigration service and other cities and counties.

The study is an essential first step. It will give commissioners an up-to-date look at whether a new jail would serve the best interests of Red Willow County and its citizens.

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