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Watts: County needs new jail

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By Randy Patrick

Judge-Executive Dean Watts thinks the solution to Nelson County’s jail overcrowding is to build a new detention facility.

At a joint meeting of the Nelson County Fiscal Court and the Bardstown City Council at the Public Library Oct. 19, Watts surprised many in the room by raising the issue of building a new lockup, which could cost upwards of $10 million.

“Probably the biggest challenge we have facing us is we’re going to have to deal with a new jail somewhere down the line” because of the county’s growth, he said.

The current Nelson County Jail was built for 24 beds in 1987 and expanded in 1992. It is now authorized by the state Department of Corrections for 102 beds, but it typically holds from 130 to 160 inmates.

One reason for the overcrowding is the county’s growth, Watts said.

The county judge said the current property on West Stephen Foster Avenue at the edge of town “does not allow for growth or expansion.” However, he mentioned that the county owns the property at the Nelson County Justice Center on East Stephen Foster — the former shopping center that includes the courthouse, which is leased to the state, the Sheriff’s Office, Bardstown Police Department, E-911 Dispatch Center and Nelson County Fire and Rescue. Watts said “that area is where we’ll probably consider a new jail in the future.”

He said county officials probably won’t start “serious conversations” about the jail until after the 2018 elections because “we don’t want to throw something in somebody’s lap and they not be able to deal with the issue — but it is a major issue.”

He estimated it would probably cost $5-10 million to build, and he thought the figure would be closer to the latter.

Watts mentioned that he had talked with Magistrate Jeff Lear about jail overcrowding after another recent Fiscal Court meeting.

“I was surprised that he said something about it,” Lear said Friday.

He said he had talked with Watts about Jailer Dorcas Figg’s biweekly report to the magistrates that includes numbers of county inmates in the local jail, other jails and in-home incarceration.

“Since I’ve been elected, that number has been going up and up and up,” Lear said.

He said he told the judge he thought it’s “probably something we’ll have to address,” but he agreed with Watts that it should be postponed until after next year’s election. He said he didn’t know whether Figg would run for another term as jailer, or even if he would still be in office, so it would be better if whoever is in office then deals with the issue.

Also, construction of a new jail is a long process because of all the bureaucracy involved at the state level.

“There’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through,” he said. “There’s a lot of moving parts.”

Figg said last week she too was surprised by Watts’ remarks at the combined meeting.

“That’s the first I’d heard about it — even considering it,” she said.

However, she said the jail is “completely overcrowded” for males and females, but especially females, and part of the problem is there is no room in the state prisons to get rid of state inmates.

She said that when the county built the current jail, she and the former jailer, Austin Weller, tried to get officials to build a 100-bed jail, but the magistrates only wanted one that was big enough to take care of the county’s own inmates. Within a few years, however, the jail had to expand, and it started contracting with Washington, Marion, Spencer and other counties to take each others’ inmates when necessary, but even with that arrangement and Marion County’s opening of a large jail, there’s still an overcrowding problem.

“Now we can’t add any more, period,” she said.

Those other counties and most counties around Kentucky are experiencing the same growing pains.

Hardin County Jailer Danny Allen said Thursday that when he first became jailer in 2011, his jail’s daily average was about 450 inmates, and now it’s about 750.

He said he has freed up space by using temporary and portable bedding and turning recreation rooms and other rooms into housing space. Staffing for all those inmates is also a problem, he said.

“In all the facilities across the state, all of us are short-staffed now,” he said.

Kentucky has 72 full-service county jails including Nelson’s, four regional jails, five jails that are designated life safety facilities and 39 closed jails.