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County ponders prison's future
Commissioners OK capacity agreement but have concerns
Kessler Wendall
Chairman Wendall Kessler

As Effingham County commissioners approve an agreement with the state for the Effingham County Prison’s capacity, they also are pondering the future of the prison — including its possible closure.

The capacity agreement calls for the state to house 192 inmates at the prison, and for the state to reimburse the county $20 per day per inmate. Commissioners renewed the agreement in June, to run from July 1-Jan. 31, 2016. The new agreement will run through June 30, to coincide with the end of the county’s fiscal year.

“I had hoped we would have looked at this by now,” said Chairman Wendall Kessler. “We have no options at this point. We’ve got to renew the agreement. To me, it’s a no-brainer to renew this until June. We do need to keep this on our radar. Reducing the population isn’t the answer; it’s to decide whether we want to close the facility. It’s either keep it open at this level or close it.”

Reducing the number of inmates would result in a reduction of reimbursement, but the county also would not be able to reduce the staffing level enough to offset the loss in reimbursement.

“We aren’t the only ones in this boat,” said county finance director Joanna Wright.

While county staff looks into reducing the number of prisoners and the need for corrections officers to oversee them, the state also may be contemplating increasing its compensation to counties.

“A lot of other people use our inmates that we don’t get any more money. We’re still losing $10 a day on them,” said Commissioner Reggie Loper. “It would be good if we could get $30; $25 would help.”

The county has a 60-day termination clause on the deal with the state. A review by staff on cutting the prison capacity by 64 would lower the cost of operating the prison from $2.35 million a year to $2.1 million annually. The county’s revenues for the prison — including the $41,000 contract with the Rincon for a prison work crew.

“There are some things we have to look at,” said Commissioner Vera Jones.

As far back as 2008, commissioners have weighed closing the prison. Then-Warden Ronald Spears told commissioners nearly eight years ago that prison cooks provided more than 360,000 meals at the prison and the jail, prepared 3,500 meals each year for the Feed A Kid program and 23,000 meals for the senior citizens center.

Inmates also served on work crews throughout the county and performed such tasks as masonry, cabinetmaking, electrical, woodworking and landscaping.

But the classification of prisoner may be changing, Kessler cautioned.

“Judicial reform makes some things possible that we could get inmates out there that we are not used to,” he said.

Earlier this month, commissioners hired retired warden Billy Tompkins to take over at the Effingham County Prison. Deputy Warden Vickie Brown had been in charge since March 2014 after Spears resigned. Spears was charged with taking cell phones that had been confiscated previously and allowing his son to sell them and keep the profits.