St. Clair jail crowding at critical stage

 02/10/03, Birmingham News

News staff writer

PELL CITY -- Terry Marcrum has a captive audience when it comes to his jailhouse humor, but the St. Clair County jail administrator says the crowding at the county's two jails is no laughing matter. 

"Pretty soon I'll just draw a line out in the parking lot and tell the inmates to stand right there and not go anywhere," Marcrum said with a laugh recently as he stood talking with several law enforcement officers inside the St. Clair County Courthouse. 

For the past two months, Marcrum said, the situation at the county's two jails has been critical. The jails were designed a decade ago to house 68 inmates each, but the jail in Pell City jail held 107 last week and the Ashville facility held 95. 

Indictments handed down in next month's grand jury could add another 20 to 40 inmates. 

The inmate populations rise and fall. But, Marcrum said, for the last several months both jails have held almost twice the number of inmates they were meant to hold. 

"I've added beds in there, but it's still just to put them somewhere so they wouldn't be lying on the floors," Marcrum said. "I'm still having people on the floor. I've got them on mats on the floor." 

Of course, St. Clair is hardly alone. Virtually every county in Alabama has battled the problem as crowding in the state prison system has forced many counties to hold onto state prisoners longer than the 30-day limit. Last week, St. Clair had 35 state inmates past the 30-day limit, even though the state took about 25 from the two jails in January. 

St. Clair is among counties suing the state Department of Corrections to enforce the 30-day limit. 

Sheriff Terry Surles isn't holding his breath. 

"The settlement of that lawsuit is probably so far down the road that I don't have any need to look at that at this point because it's not going to do any good to worry about it," Surles said. "We'll just try to get by with what we've got and do the best we can, but it sure does put a strain on you." 

In St. Clair, that strain is doubled by the unfortunate convenience of having two county seats one in Ashville and one in Pell City. Plus, the county holds inmates from all the cities and townships, including Ragland, Odenville, Branchville, Riverside and Steele. 

"By law, we have to maintain two county courthouses, we have to maintain two sheriff's offices, and we have to maintain two county ails," Marcrum said. ".. I can understand the two courthouses and, naturally, two sheriff's offices because you like protection on both sides of your county. But to have two jails is really an expense we need to look at." 

Marcrum said a centrally located jail would be more economical to operate, but adds that it would be inconvenient for departments with only two or three officers to transport prisoners across the county. 

Surles said a more realistic option would be a countywork-release program. He said the county made room for20 prisoners in its trusty dormitory almost a year ago in anticipation of getting a local act passed by the legislature to allow a work-release program. 

The bill has been written, he said, but was put on the back burner because of last November's elections. 

In the meantime, the jail's overflow population is using those work-release beds, and Marcrum is left counting beds and money. 

"They only give us $1.75 per day per inmate," Marcrum said. "We have to feed them, house them and clothe them for that $1.75 and provide their medical services. Our medical cost for this next year is projected to be right at $300,000." 

He said state prison officials say it costs them $26 a day to house an inmate and that they were considering sending prisoners out of state to house them for that amount. 

"I guarantee you if I was getting $26 a day for every state prisoner I had in jail, I would still holler, but it wouldn't be as loud," the sheriff said.