Expanded Bibb Councy jail overcrowded again

Bibb County’s jail, expanded less than three years ago to end federal oversight, has seen its capacity topped by as many as two dozen inmates.

The problem has officials eyeing alternative sentencing such as ankle monitoring, as well as collaborative efforts to prevent children and adults from becoming criminals or repeat offenders.

“I think we’ve got to look for alternatives to incarceration,” said Sam Hart, chairman of the Bibb County Commission. “A lot of these people get out of jail, go right back to jail.”

Sheriff Jerry Modena has been reviewing ankle monitoring since he was elected a decade ago. But the capacity crunch lends more urgency to the situation.

This month, Chief Deputy Russell Nelson, who oversees the county jail, told commissioners the state is dumping 500 inmates a month out of its prisons. He predicted the county would need additional space within a year.

“We need to keep the United States government from putting another court order on the county,” he said.

Nelson said that at one point in October, the jail had 990 inmates but is built for 966. Before an expansion that opened in 2007, the jail had room for 585.

Hart told fellow commissioners it seems like the last expansion was just yesterday.

“I think we need to look at alternatives to incarceration and other things, because it seems like we couldn’t build them big enough and fast enough,” he said.

Searching for money, space

Reform efforts that ultimately could relieve jail crowding face tough challenges of space and money. The sheriff’s office found out it was competing with the Juvenile Court for the use of the former Virgil Powers school, where both hope to start programs to reform offenders.

The idea is collaboration. For example, an adult getting out of jail might not only need help finding a job, but training, a place to stay, help setting up food stamps and a new driver’s license or other identification.

The former Virgil Powers school space has long been tentatively promised to the Juvenile Court, which hopes to build a new courthouse nearby. The old school is also next to the jail.

But while tutors for juveniles or trainers for adults might educate people out of a life of crime, those instructors also cost money. The county is struggling to close its own budget holes measured in millions, while the state may face budget shortfalls in the billions.

Nelson said earlier that reform efforts already have paid dividends in Bibb County. Drug court and a mental health court have kept 40 to 50 inmates from filling beds in the county jail, he said. And the ankle monitoring would cost $7 a day, making it far cheaper than the $55 a day it takes to put someone in a conventional jail cell, he said.

People with nonviolent misdemeanor charges, such as check forgery, could be the first to get any ankle monitors, officials said.

Some of the crowding problem is coming from outside. On a weekday this month, for example, the Bibb County jail had 873 inmates and a capacity of 966. Some 140 of them were state inmates awaiting pickup. Two years ago, 108 were waiting to get into a state prison.

The problem isn’t only in Bibb, either. In February 2008 the state had to pick up 3,188 prisoners from county jails, but more than 5,011 in February 2010.

“Right this moment, we have over 5,000 state-tried and convicted inmates that are languishing in the county jails across Georgia,” Modena said. “The state, they haven’t built any new prisons. They’ve done nothing but close prisons.”

Bibb County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, a minister and attorney who has handled criminal cases in the past, said bright people are still trying to find the answers. He said he knows what doesn’t work.

“We had a lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality, and that broke the bank,” he said.

But even if the bank is broken today, officials want to find some way of deterring future crime. Edwards said that will take a hefty set of partnerships — more community service instead of jail, for example, combined with schools and families playing important roles.

“We just can’t stand pat,” Edwards said.

Tough transitions

A group called the Macon Reentry Coalition is trying to ease convicts back into society. Among the challenges are drugs and mental illness, jobs, education, housing and transportation.

Statistics on state prisoners show the typical inmate has an 11th-grade education. About 1 in 8 inmates has no more than a middle-school education.

Modena noted that college graduates are competing for jobs now, making it harder for lower-skilled former inmates to get them.

“A lot of folks, they literally don’t have any skills other than violating the law in order to survive,” he said.

And beyond being convicts and typically having poor education, many have other challenges. This month, the Macon Judicial Circuit’s chief probation officer, Stacy Rivera, told commissioners that agencies had to talk to each other because everyone — the sheriff, police, the River Edge Behavioral Health Center people, the state Department of Corrections — keep dealing with the same people.

Juvenile Court Judge Tom Matthews said juvenile officials see exactly the same situation.

But the county’s planned new juvenile courthouse hasn’t yet been funded, and there’s no space identified for agencies to work with adult offenders.

Modena said job training and re-entry programs are worth a look.

“But the question is, are they going to cost money, how much money, and can we afford it? This is a state burden they’re apparently not able to assume,” he said. “We’re handling the mental health. We’re handling the sex offenders. We’re handling the overcrowding. Quite frankly, the local taxpayer is being pushed to the limit right now.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.