Extra beds in Pinellas County Jail may hold state inmates — for a price

Just two years ago, the Pinellas County Jail was chronically overcrowded.

The facility at times housed 1,000 more inmates than it was designed to hold. Some slept on the floor.

But an effort by justice officials to reduce the jail population has worked. In addition, a new medical building opened and an old bus garage nearby was converted into an annex.

Now, the jail has hundreds of empty beds.

Sheriff Jim Coats hopes to make that pay off — literally.

The sheriff will meet with Florida Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil in Tallahassee on Friday to discuss housing state prison inmates in the jail — for a price.

The federal government paid the county $2.9 million last fiscal year to house prisoners for the U.S. Marshals and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Maybe the county can strike the same kind of deal with the state, the sheriff said.

"This would give us an opportunity to make more law enforcement resources available to the citizens," Coats said.

But the sheriff stressed that talks are just "exploratory."

"We're just negotiating," McNeil said. "We're really excited about it."

As of Wednesday, the Pinellas jail had 2,942 inmates. In its current configuration it can hold nearly 3,600. But Coats said it was as low as 2,700 just a few months ago.

The sheriff said his agency might be able to lease as many as 400 empty beds to the state without incurring extra costs or risk overcrowding at the jail again.

But Coats said the jail will only accept minimum security, low-risk prisoners with just a few years left on their sentences.

McNeil seemed to agree.

"We have low-risk inmates and they're going back to the communities anyway," he said. "They will be back in their communities in 18 months or so."

The state is considering a similar deal with Duval County.

McNeil spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said such arrangements could eliminate the need for the cash-strapped agency to build more prisons.

But Coats said there's more to discuss than just how much the state should pay per inmate.

"We've got to discuss things such as inmate programs," the sheriff said. "We've got to discuss inmate health care."

The federal government pays the county $79.40 a day to house its prisoners. Most of that is netted by the county.

The fee the state would pay per prisoner hasn't been discussed.

If a deal is struck, the money the state pays will go into the county's coffers. But Coats wants his agency to be the beneficiary.

It cost $121 million last year to run the jail, which employs 1,311 — 825 of whom are detention deputies.

The jail overcrowding problem was alleviated when Pinellas' court system began moving cases quicker and getting non-violent offenders out sooner.

A new 432-bed medical facility and an old bus garage converted into a 256-bed annex also helped.

But even the sheriff had to admit his shock at all this, considering recent overcrowding.

Said Coats: "Two years ago at this time I would find it hard to believe that we would be in this situation."

Extra beds in Pinellas County Jail may hold state inmates — for a price 02/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 8:01am]

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