Monday, February 12, 2007

A New jail for Sarasota County? Part 5

The Sun-Herald newspaper that serves Venice and North Port has recently written some reasonable editorials about the jail situation in Sarasota county. Below are some of their thoughts, published in February of 2007.

If you are arrested, you could do far worse than serve time in the Sarasota County jail.

While not a country club (a term applied to some federal prisons), Sarasota's jail ranks near the top of all Florida jails, according to reports from state inspectors.

It is spotlessly clean. Food is catered in. The jail appears to be safe compared to some facilities for prisoners awaiting trial or sentenced to spend up to a year behind bars.

Services are available that offenders lack outside. If you arrive with a toothache, a dentist is available two days a week. Those who have mental problems are evaluated.

If you have been cut in a fight, a nurse practitioner will treat or suture your injuries. If you are truly ill, they will care for you in a small, but well-equipped hospital ward that includes X-ray equipment.

Prisoners also are separated by crime committed. Those who have been violent are housed together away from those accused of lesser offenses.

There is a chapel that holds more than a dozen services each week, as well as Bible study classes.

Chronic drunks and crackheads stay in a special room. A nurse keeps watch as they go through night sweats, high fever, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, sleeplessness, fatigue and heart palpitations.

If sitting around in a day room wears a person down, in the old section there is a roof-top recreation area and in the new north wing it is possible to exercise in a fresh air room by tossing a basketball through a hoop.

There is one shower head for every 16 inmates, a toilet for every eight persons. A toilet is located in every cell, although there is no privacy.

The new wing, completed in 2002, has washers and driers to keep clothing clean. An inmate can call a lawyer or a family member.

It does have flaws. There is too little room for police vehicles bringing inmates in. Cars and vans with prisoners stack up Ringling Boulevard.

The jail is labor-intensive. One officer is required to escort every person being booked.

The jail is overcrowded. County commissioners are being asked to find a solution -- a project that will cost taxpayers millions.

To hold down the overflow, the courts conduct frequent "sweeps" to see if there are relatively harmless prisoners who should be sent home to await trial.

When the jail is filled, a third inmate moves into a two-bunk cell, sleeping in a dinghy-size plastic mattress tray on the floor.

The oldest, least desirable section of the jail was constructed in 1975. It was designed for 214 inmates. In 1987 the east wing was constructed for 540 more. When those two sections began to overflow, a north wing was constructed. It opened in 2002, adding 288 beds.

The sixth and final floor is scheduled to open in April. New corrections officers are completing their training. But even then the jail is expected to continue to exceed its capacity of 1,044 inmates.

Several times in recent months the Sarasota County jail has been filled to overflowing. When that happens, cells with two bunks must accommodate three prisoners.

So what can the county do? Commissioners delayed hiring a consultant until a county committee does more work. To try to buy time the county is spending $6 million in 2007 to improve the old facility.

What prevents the County from moving the jail out of downtown Sarasota?

First, overcrowding varies day to day. The present jail is across from the courthouse. Prisoners must be transported in handcuffs and leg irons.

Money is an issue. The jail's north wing opened in 2002. The cost for 288 additional beds, a new kitchen, and health care space was $17 million. Price of new jail complex would be much more. But the cost to taxpayers goes up each year.

The biggest barrier is the NIMBY factor -- "not in my back yard." People don't want a jail as their neighbor. Some fear inmates will escape. They don't want busses and vans filled with prisoners cruising through their neighborhood. They worry about property values.

That's why there has been talk of sharing a jail with DeSoto and Manatee counties. That requires a great deal of travel time and cost.

There may be another solution -- near I-75 in North Port.

Several North Port commissioners think a North Port jail might be possible. The county also could build a juvenile facility and courthouse in the city.

Fred Tower says there is a block of land in the Yorkshire area -- small private lots that could be rezoned. But swift action would be required.

Today's land prices are down. Wait two or three years and it might be more difficult to rezone and buy property. Tower believes up to 500 acres could be made available for a jail and/or industrial park.

Why would North Port want the new jail?

It could provide up to 200 local jobs. Many North Port residents now drive long distances to find work.

North Port has been unable to extend water and sewer lines out that far. Building a jail would solve that problem.

Then there is the cost of transporting the city's prisoners. It ties up officers who should be out patrolling the streets.

Finally, North Port will have some 250,000 residents when it is built out. At present 55,000 people live in the City of Sarasota, 370,000 in the county. An estimated 45,000 to 50,000 already call North Port home. In time, the City of Sarasota will become the "little brother."

It is time for county commissioners, administrators, and planning staff to tour North Port. They also might benefit from flying over the city in a helicopter. County officials make too many decisions without knowing what is happening in North Port.

Putting a jail, a branch court house and juvenile center near I-75 in North Port would solve several thorny problems. As the city grows the crime rate is expected to increase. From the standpoint of demographics, it makes sense. But the county should act while there is empty land. It will take time to change the zoning and install infrastructure.

The jail should now move up the county's priority list.

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