Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Regional jail will ease overcrowding at local facility

The Montgomery County Jail is holding three times its 60-inmate rated capacity.

An open dormitory-style area of the new Western Virginia Regional Jail will be used by trusted inmates and those with less offensive crimes and who show non aggressive behavior.
   
   n Take a tour of the new regional jail at roanoke.com.

Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times

An open dormitory-style area of the new Western Virginia Regional Jail will be used by trusted inmates and those with less offensive crimes and who show non aggressive behavior. n Take a tour of the new regional jail at roanoke.com.

Master Deputy and Classifications Officer Debby Aliff works in the cramped classifications and records office with two other deputies at the Montgomery County Jail. Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Whitt says 51 people were employed by the jail, including 18 emergency correctional positions that will no longer be needed. Some positions were reclassified, and some employees were offered jobs at the new Western Virginia Regional Jail in Roanoke County.

Justin Cook | The Roanoke Times

Master Deputy and Classifications Officer Debby Aliff works in the cramped classifications and records office with two other deputies at the Montgomery County Jail. Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Whitt says 51 people were employed by the jail, including 18 emergency correctional positions that will no longer be needed. Some positions were reclassified, and some employees were offered jobs at the new Western Virginia Regional Jail in Roanoke County.

Inmate Jonathan Wingo washes a police vehicle at the Montgomery County Jail. Although several inmates will be transported to the new Western Virginia Regional Jail, the county jail will still accommodate people who are serving their sentences on weekends, and inmate work crews will continue.

Justin Cook | The Roanoke Times

Inmate Jonathan Wingo washes a police vehicle at the Montgomery County Jail. Although several inmates will be transported to the new Western Virginia Regional Jail, the county jail will still accommodate people who are serving their sentences on weekends, and inmate work crews will continue.

CHRISTIANSBURG -- For the first time in more than a decade, the Montgomery County Jail may soon hold only the number of inmates it was built to hold.

The opening of the Western Virginia Regional Jail in Roanoke County will significantly relieve overcrowding at the Montgomery County Jail, which is currently at three times its rated capacity.

"It's going to relieve a pretty heavy burden for us," Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Whitt said.

Like many others across the state, the Montgomery County Jail has been overcrowded for years.

Its average daily population was 180 in 2008 and 202 in 2007, in a facility rated by the Department of Corrections to hold 60 and with 115 beds.

The new regional jail opened for tours Friday on 42 acres near Dixie Caverns and serves the counties of Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin and the city of Salem. It will start accepting inmates next week.

Those from the Roanoke County Jail will move first, followed by Montgomery and Franklin counties.

"We have 103 inmates ready to go," Whitt said.

After those inmates are moved, the Montgomery County inmates who are currently being housed outside the county will be moved as well.

The Montgomery County Jail was originally rated by the state to hold 60 inmates, but in 1989 double-bunked as many beds as possible, creating 115 beds, according to Capt. Robert Hall, who oversees the jail. But with an average of 180 inmates on any given day, there still weren't enough beds. Many inmates sleep on mats on the floor.

In April 2007, the jail began paying other jails to hold some of its inmates.

Now, 26 inmates are being held in the Roanoke City Jail and the Blue Ridge Regional Jail in Lynchburg. The sheriff's office has also housed its inmates in Abingdon.

It costs $25 to $38 a day to rent each bed at another facility, but the practice became a necessity, Hall said.

Also helping to keep the jail from being even more crowded than it is, 21 county inmates are currently on home electronic monitoring and others are housed in substance-abuse programs.

"We've done everything we could to divert as many of the nonviolent inmates out of here as possible," Hall said.

The Montgomery County Jail will keep 60 to 70 pretrial inmates at a time. In addition, it will still accommodate people who are serving their sentences on weekends, and inmate work crews will continue.

By keeping the jail open, the sheriff's office won't have to transfer inmates far when they need to make court appearances.

The courthouse sits next to the jail, and planned courthouse renovations include an underground tunnel that connects the two so inmates won't have to be chained together and walked between the buildings outside, as is the practice now.

Keeping the county jail open will also save time and money for the departments that use the jail, including the sheriff's office, the Virginia State Police and the Christiansburg, Blacksburg and Virginia Tech police departments.

Rather than drive to Dixie Caverns every time they arrest someone who needs to be jailed, such as a person suspected of driving under the influence, officers will still be able to drop them off much closer to home.

Whitt said 51 people were employed by the jail, including 18 emergency correctional positions that will no longer be needed. The state requires one correctional officer for every three inmates up to capacity, and one emergency correctional officer for every five inmates past capacity.

The state Compensation Board approved for seven of the 18 positions to be reclassified because it had not properly staffed the court security and civil division of the sheriff's office, Whitt said. Five of the seven became court security and civil process officers for the county and two went into law enforcement, Whitt said.

The 11 others were offered jobs at the regional jail, Whitt said. He said he had been careful to tell all of those people when they were hired that their positions in Montgomery County would be lost when the regional jail opened.

Whitt said county officials looked into the feasibility of expanding the county jail, but determined that partnering on the regional jail would be more cost-efficient. The county jail would have to be expanded upward by adding more levels, Whitt said.

The regional jail will not only save money for the localities it serves but could also eventually bring in money, he said. Beds that aren't filled by local inmates could be outsourced by overcrowded jails in other parts of the state.

"It's just going to allow us a whole lot more flexibility and room to work inside the confines of the jail," Whitt said. "I think it's going to give us room to breathe."

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