The Estill County jail has been forced to close because of safety problems that included a non-working sprinkler system, and it’s not clear when or whether it will reopen.
Jailer Bo Morris said he wants to reopen the jail and will ask the fiscal court on April 17 to approve money for repairs.
However, Estill County Judge-Executive Wallace Taylor said Friday that the budget is so tight that the county struggles to make payroll every two weeks, leaving nothing extra to fix the jail.
“The county does not have the money,” Taylor said.
Taylor said he wants to arrange a contract with another county to house all of Estill County’s inmates, who are now scattered among half a dozen counties.
Taylor said it cost the county $1.2 million last year to operate the jail. He said the county can cut the cost by half or more by paying one county to keep all of Estill’s inmates.
The state Department of Corrections ordered the Estill jail to shut down March 31 because the fiscal court hadn’t taken action to repair safety problems, according to Lisa Lamb, spokewoman for the department.
Inspections by the department, which oversees local jails, found that the sprinkler system hasn’t been operable since May 2016, Lamb said.
In addition, the system to clear smoke out of the jail hasn’t worked since February 2016.
The county had made some efforts to repair the system, but the state hadn’t received documentation to show that it worked, Lamb said.
Lamb said there were 25 inmates at the jail the day it closed. A judge released two, and Morris and deputies moved the others to several counties, including Jackson, Clay and Lee County, which has a regional jail.
Estill County is paying those jails to hold its prisoners.
Morris said he had to lay off half a dozen employees.
He and seven remaining deputies are working 12-hour shifts on call. They meet police when someone is arrested and transport them to other counties.
When the inmates are scheduled for court hearings, Morris and deputies have to get them to Estill County and then return them afterward.
Morris said he has taken female inmates as far as Casey County, a four-hour round trip.
“It’s created a whole lot of headaches,” he said.
Deputy jailers also have to go to other counties when an Estill inmate gets sick and relieve the local officer who accompanied the person for medical care. That ties up a staffer and vehicle for hours, said Chad Smith, one of Morris’ deputies.
Morris said the jail has only 16 beds, but at midweek Estill County had 57 inmates in other counties.
The county was sending some inmates to other counties even before it closed, Taylor said.
The jail, which opened in 1984, had been classified as a life-safety jail for some time because of shortcomings.
That meant it could hold only local inmates, not state or federal inmates, who bring in money to help offset the cost of running jails.
Many rural counties have struggled with the cost of running jails, and dozens have closed.
There are 39 counties without a local jail, according to the Department of Corrections. They either pay another county to house inmates or participate in a regional jail.
Lamb said the Estill jail will have to remain closed until the fiscal court provides money for repairs.
If the court approves the spending, it would take about two weeks to get everything in line to reopen. That includes getting food delivered and rehiring workers, Morris said.
The state would have to reinspect the jail to make sure it met standards, Lamb said.
Taylor said it would cost $7,000 to fix the safety problems at the jail.
But this is the time of year when the budget gets tight because little revenue is coming in, Taylor said.
Property taxes are the biggest source of revenue in many counties, but the money doesn’t start coming in until late fall.
Taylor said he was making arrangements Friday to borrow $400,000 to pay insurance, audit and other costs.
He said he doesn’t support reopening the jail immediately. If he can arrange a contract to house all the county’s prisoners in one place, once everyone adjusts to it, there won’t be a reason to reopen the jail, he said.
Smith, the jail deputy, said taking prisoners to another county might not save as much as the judge-executive thinks.
Paying for jails isn’t popular, but holding people who are charged or convicted of breaking the law is an integral part of public safety, he said.
“You can get rid of the jail, but there has to be law and order,” he said. “It has to be paid regardless.”