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County should be ready for jail's success, failure

Now that Corrections Corporation of America has assured that operations at the county jail will no longer risk the safety of either prisoners or the public, the County Commission should take a page from the Boy Scouts of America's handbook:

Be prepared.

Tuesday, the private jail operator used personnel changes and promises of new procedures and equipment to persuade commissioners not to cancel its $10-million annual contract. That agreement has grown increasingly unstable in the past year as CCA has changed wardens three times in response to a long list of serious incidents at the county-owned jail, including:

the suicide of three inmates who apparently had not been properly monitored;

the inappropriate transfer and/or release of several prisoners;

a guard arrested for allegedly stealing cash from prisoners;

failure to properly document the arrests of hundreds of prisoners;

not readily disclosing an internal audit that was critical of operations at the jail;

an inquiry by the State Attorney's Office;

an escape just last week while CCA executives were in town to address other problems.

In addition, the Times recently revealed that corrections officers at the jail are paid less and have less training than guards at other CCA facilities in this region.

While it is understandable that the County Commission would prefer to believe CCA is on top of the problems - some would say belatedly - and that the Nashville-based company will follow through on its plans for improvement, the board needs to make plans of its own to protect the interests of taxpayers.

It should prepare a comprehensive contingency plan for reclaiming operations of the jail if CCA does not live up to its promises or the commission's expectations. The study should be collaborated on by the sheriff, the county's human resources director, the budget officer, and the jail's contract and operations monitors. Their report should include estimates for what it would cost the sheriff to run the jail, and cover every detail from hiring and training personnel, to feeding, clothing and transporting inmates, to purchasing equipment and liability insurance.

With such an up-to-date report in hand, the commissioners would be in a much better position to make an informed decision about the actual cost to taxpayers if problems persist with CCA. It also might provide them with constructive insight into just how much they are saving, and how much CCA is profiting, under the current arrangement.

Addressing the commission Tuesday, former Sheriff Tom Mylander offered some well-placed cautionary advice about CCA's pledge to update its inmate-monitoring equipment.

"Technology is only as good as the people you've got working that equipment," he said after likening CCA's presentation Tuesday to one the company gave when it first sought the county's business 19 years ago.

Mylander's successor, Sheriff Richard Nugent, has made it clear he does not want to assume responsibility for the jail, which he has sharply criticized. His preference should be given full consideration, of course. However, his stance should not preclude the commission from exploring its options, just as it would not supersede the commission's need for the sheriff to take over the jail if CCA is not doing its job.

With a report expected from the State Attorney's Office soon, and the possibility that it might include information not previously disclosed or a recommendation for a grand jury to examine the situation and make a presentment, it would make sense for the County Commission to move quickly to assign the cost study.

In the meantime, for the sake of taxpayers, corrections officers and prisoners, the commission must be dogged in its continued scrutiny of the jail. That includes relying on CCA's anticipated success, but also preparing for anything less.