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The Kansan - Newton, KS
  • Jail population at critical level

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  • When the Harvey County Detention Center's inmate population started reaching a critical level around the first of the year, Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton hoped it was a one-time occurrence, and that levels would soon return to normal.
    However, that trend hasn't stopped, and as the Detention Center approaches the maximum population limit, Walton is scrambling to come up with a back-up plan.
    "They just keep going up," Walton said of the jail's population figures. "... It's something we've never had to face before."
    The jail was built to hold 136, but with three cells out of operation, that number has dropped to 130. Last week, the average population was 136. That's a dramatic jump from 2009, when the daily inmate average was only 98. Walton said there now is no more room for female prisoners.
    Rising population
    So, what is causing the spike in the jail's population? The answer to that question, Walton says, is a complicated one.
    Although Harvey County's bonds are cheaper than other places, that hasn't made much of a difference.
    "People don't have any money, so they're staying," he said.
    Harvey County's domestic violence program has resulted in more arrests, which Walton said is positive. However, this also means that more people are being booked into the county jail and the county now has to process more inmates than in the past.
    Mental health funding cuts could be resulting in more people ending up in the criminal justice system. If people aren't receiving the treatment they need, they may commit a crime that lands them in jail. These inmates can be violent and put the jail staff at risk. Walton said jail staff are not trained therapists but are still having to deal with these challenges.
    Walton believes the city of Newton's close proximity to Wichita is another factor that is contributing to the rising jail population. The Sedgwick County Jail also is packed.
    Rising costs
    Walton said the cut-off for the number of inmates the county can take is 145. If the jail goes over that number, the county will have to pay to send prisoners to other jails.
    Most other jails in the region charge higher rates than Harvey County. Though Harvey County charges cities $25 for housing their inmates, the Reno County jail charges $40 a day, with the city of Hutchinson paying 14 percent of its operating costs. McPherson is $35 a day.
    This isn't the only financial challenge the jail is facing. Increasing costs for food supplies and utilities put more of a strain on the county jail's budget, and more and more inmates are needing medication, with about 90 on prescription drugs.
    "Bottom line, the cost is borne by the taxpayer," Walton said.
    Page 2 of 2 - Although Walton said people often wonder why the inmates receive so many services while in jail, the county has to abide by statutes. Inmates must be provided medical and mental health care, and the food they eat has to meet mandated qualifications.
    Rising concerns
    Due to the increasing jail population, Walton has had to cut back on the number of federal prisoners he can take in.
    "I hate doing that, because we make money on them," he said.
    The county is paid $55 a day for housing a federal prisoner, plus payment for that patient's medication. The jail brought in more than $1 million last year by housing federal prisoners, and the program has become a major revenue generator for the county.
    In the long-term, Walton would like to expand the jail to the north, which would allow the jail to have 66 more beds. He believes the cost for the expansion would pay off in the long run, as the jail would have an increased capacity to house federal prisoners.
    As for now, Walton is simply hoping the jail won't hit its maximum population limit this weekend.
    "The weekends are scary," he said. "... You put that many in there, and it gets testy."
     

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