By Timothy Cox
Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey plans to start shipping some inmates to other counties to ease the jail's overcrowding problem as county officials continue talks on building a new jail.
County commissioners toured the 1939-era jail on Tuesday to see firsthand the overflow problem that has led Grey to place mattresses on the floor for some inmates to sleep on.
Based on current jail standards, the small jail should be housing only 15 inmates, less than half of the number staying there now.
Some inmates will be sent to other area jails in the interim, Grey said. It costs about $42 per day or about $1,400 monthly to house inmates elsewhere. That figure does not include transportation and labor costs to haul prisoners to and from other jails.
A preliminary needs assessment is underway to determine the county's jail requirements during the next couple of decades. County officials believe they could build a jail on existing farmland the county owns near the county home west of Celina, but no firm decision on a site has been made. County officials also do not know exactly how they might pay for a new jail. Grey said he understands taxpayers do not favor pouring millions of dollars into a jail, but also said the county has little choice but to consider the issue.
"I know there's other needs in the county but times have changed and we need a new jail," Grey said.
Commissioner Bob Nuding said many residents know the county needs a new jail. "People are talking about it. They're aware of our problem," Nuding said.
Any new facility should provide adequate space for storage, for counseling and other inmate services, Grey said. There are no rehabilitation or counseling programs available at the jail now, he said.
"We can warehouse people, which is what we're doing now, or we can at least make an effort to rehabilitate them," Grey said.
Commissioner Jerry Laffin said all space issues should be considered before plans for a new jail are drawn up. That includes accounting for necessary storage space -- including for the recreational-sized command vehicle the sheriff's office plans to store in Chickasaw -- and possibly other needs, such as a vehicle impound area, Laffin said.
County officials avoided building a new jail nearly 20 years ago when overcrowding became an issue then, Laffin said. County officials purchased the house on the corner of Walnut and Livingston streets and converted it into the sheriff's business office. That freed up the existing facility to serve only as a jail.
But the jail today is non-compliant on some state standards, and it is becoming more difficult to maintain the aging facility. Many of the jail's old mechanical systems can no longer be serviced properly, Chief Deputy Tim Finke said.
The county cannot afford to build a jail from existing funding. That means voters could be asked to approve a sales tax or property tax to pay for the facility.