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Should local jails house federal prisoners?

Johnson City Press • Updated Jun 17, 2018 at 4:15 PM

As Johnson City Press Elizabethton Bureau Chief John Thompson wrote last week, the Carter County Sheriff’s Department is banking on newly realized revenue for housing federal prisoners to help solve some of the department’s financial woes.

Carter County has housed state prisoners at its jail for a while now, at a rate of $37 per inmate per day, but the sheriff’s department only recently started taking in those incarcerated by the federal government, which pays the much more lucrative rate of $60 per day.

County Chief Deputy James Parrish asked the Budget Committee to allow the department to retain the extra $500,000 annually to help pay for deputy overtime and for a new communications system to replace the department’s aging radios. Long-term, the money could be used to help pay off the debt for the construction of the jail.

The Tennessee Department of Correction and the U.S. Department of Justice rely on county jails to house inmates awaiting trial and transportation and locally sentenced inmates with shorter sentences to help control prison overcrowding. The governments fill vacant space in jails, and the prisoners become a source of income for counties seeking to stretch taxpayers’ dollars as far as they can and still provide the level of services their residents expect.

Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal said his jail has taken in federal prisoners for years, and the $3.5 million generated annually by both the state and federal housing programs goes into the county’s general fund. At any given time, the Washington County jail houses about 145 prisoners from the state and 75 from the federal government.

To receive federal prisoners, local jails must meet certain requirements, including having 24-hour supervision, providing three adequate meals a day and round-the-clock emergency medical services.

But local jails aren’t required to maintain programming often offered by state and federal prisons, like drug counseling, educational programs and other offerings designed to reduce recidivism.

Originally, county jails were intended to house people convicted of misdemeanors and all those incarcerated while awaiting trial, sentencing or hearings for probation and parole violations. As the state and federal governments’ felony incarceration rates rose, overcrowding became an issue, so they began to rely more heavily on jails, which were built and equipped for shorter-term inmates, to house the more dangerous prisoners.

Nationally, the trend toward higher incarceration rates seems to have turned, with prison populations in decline, meaning the revenue from housing federal and state prisoners may not be as reliable as county officials originally thought.

The practice brings up interesting questions concerning local funding, prisoner rehabilitation and preparedness, so we want to hear from you. Should local jails house federal and state prisoners?

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