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Counties weigh difficult options when building jails

Construction: For at least one industry crime is paying big benefits

To hear discussion in the state Legislature two weeks ago, one would think construction of correctional facilities around the state has been stagnant.

Jackson attorney Ron Welch, who is representing inmates in a federal court lawsuit over the issue of prison overcrowding, told legislators he is still concerned about the number of state inmates in county jails. According to the state Department of Corrections, 1,400 state inmates are being housed in county jails, many because the state does not have a sufficient amount of prison space.

But that would appear to be changing, said Guy White, vice president of White Construction and 1998 president of Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors.

White said prison construction activity has been strong throughout the southeastern states where his company works, and particularly in Mississippi.

Currently, White Construction has three projects under contract, representing about $40 million, including a 1,000-bed regional facility in Lauderdale County and county facilities in Tunica and Bolivar counties.

Of course, Mississippi has seen its lean times in prison construction, he said, but that has changed during this decade. And while competition for projects is tough, White said the use of in-state contractors for work has provided enough prison work for those seeking it.

“Ten to 15 years ago it certainly wasn’t like this,” he said. “[Today] it’s a challenge just to keep up with the opportunities. If you don’t have a lot going on, something is wrong.”

Another Mississippi contractor who has been successful at building correctional facilities is Water Valley-based Carothers Construction.

Carothers recently completed a 1,000-bed, $28-million facility in Woodville, and in March was awarded a $4.7-million contract by Winston County to manage the construction of a 316-bed county jail in the central Mississippi town of Louisville. That 48,000-square foot facility will also house inmates from neighboring Choctaw County.

Carothers also managed construction of a 200-bed facility in Lee County which opened last year, and is currently doing a $1-million renovation to the Grenada County jail, said Steve Hartsuff, Carothers’ marketing director.

Like White, Hartsuff said he sees the amount of work in the corrections arena only increasing over the next several years.

“There’s an amazing amount of prison construction projects right now,” Hartsuff said, adding, “We only see that line of business increasing.”

Hartsuff said most county and state officials who have grappled with this problem for years are now being forced to act.

To defray the costs, counties have worked together to build joint facilities, have built jails capable of housing state prisoners and then contracted to house them at nearly $25 a day, and, in at least one case in Grenada County, have hired private companies to manage the facilities.

“Getting the funding to do this work is a long and complicated procedure,” White said. “But I do think they are taking the step in the right direction.”

Union County Chancery Clerk Larry Koon said that the county has been talking about the need for a new county jail since he was voted into office in 1988. On March 30 the county opened a $5.2 million, 94-bed jail to replace the county 60-year-old jail and provided space for Justice Court and other support services.

For elected county officials prison construction has become a necessary evil, Koon said.

“It’s a tough move for supervisors to build one,” said Koon, who said raising funds to build such a facility is a nightmare. Construction for that jail was funded through a $1.5 million bond issue and monies from a fund set aside when the county leased it’s hospital to Baptist Memorial Health Care in 1990.

“It’s a hard sell,” he said of getting voters to approve a bond issue.

Ultimately, county officials have to recognize the liability the county faces by not providing adequate space for a growing and diverse prison population, Koon said, adding his county had been lucky to escape any lawsuits because of the inadequate facilities.

But now with enough space for the county’s inmates, and possibly some from neighboring Tippah County’s prisoners, Koon said the county must deal with the dilemma confronting so many other counties: Housing juvenile offenders.

“We need a juvenile facility here” in northeast Mississippi, Koon said, who noted that Lee County had at one time been approached by a private company interested in constructing a regional juvenile jail.

Construction of such facilities could be the next big boon for the industry, said both White and Hartsuff. In fact, crimes committed by juveniles continues to rise dramatically, with people under 18 committing more than half of all punishable offenses.

Many believe that high profile events like the school shootings in Pearl and Jonesboro only increase the chances that society will demand law enforcement and the courts take tougher action with society’s young criminals.

“I see that as being forthcoming,” White said of juvenile prison construction.

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