Meridian Star

Local News

May 4, 2014

County officials ponder new jail questions:

Where, when, how big, how much?

MERIDIAN — The growing need for jail space in Lauderdale County is a topic often discussed among area officials and it was on the table again recently when Sheriff Billy Sollie and the Lauderdale Board of Supervisors heard a report from a businessman who has pledged to do his best to get the jail out of downtown Meridian.

    The board has not yet made any decision on building a new jail or expanding the current one, which holds 300 prisoners, nor has it decided whether to build outside of the downtown area.

    Other questions also remain; among them are what type of facility should be constructed and how large should it be?

    Joe McCraney, county administrator, said options to be considered include building something to house county prisoners or building something designated as a regional jail, which could be used to house state prisoners.

    No decisions have been made, he said, but officials agree that eventually, something will have to be done because the county jail is routinely full, with some prisoners having to be sent to Kemper County.

    Sheriff Billy Sollie has said that he would like to double the prisoner capacity.

    "There are a number of counties around the state that have built jails well in excess of 500 beds, some close to 1,000 bed capacity. We know that crime is certainly escalating, be it in Meridian, Lauderdale County, the state of Mississippi or world wide," Sollie said. "For us to not build what would seem to be more than what we need would be putting us into the same situation we are in today by not having enough space to adequately meet the needs of our justice system."

    The current jail opened in 1998 and has a capacity of having 50 more beds added, Sollie said.

    Because no plan has been developed, there is no cost estimate available and McCraney said funding options will vary, depending upon what type of facility is decided on.

    "Some counties finance jails with revenue bonds which is based off the revenue that you put in from the state and county sources," McCraney said. "Others finance through general obligation bonds. You have to determine what type of inmates are going to be in there."

    At a Thursday work session of the board, businessman Jim McRae brought in two proposals from companies that would offer a public/private partnership. McRae first went to the board six months ago to ask if he could seek proposals with the hopes of eventually getting the jail out of the downtown area.

    McRae received proposals from two developers, Yates Construction of Philadelphia and New Horizons of Jackson.  McRae described the public/private partnership by comparing it to the construction of the Meridian Police Department.

    "They pay the lease on a monthly basis but at the end of 20 years, the building reverts to them," McRae said.     McRae is the father-in-law of developer Tim Allred, who took over as contractor on the MPD building after work by the previous developer stalled. McRae said neither he nor Allred's company would be involved in this partnership.

    "No, he would not be and I want to be clear about that," McRae said. "I'm just trying to facilitate development downtown and anybody will tell you that the jail is our biggest deterrent to visitors coming downtown."

    As board president of the Soule' Museum, which is just down the street from the jail, McRae says he believes more tourists would come downtown if they didn't see prisoners outside and fences with barbed wire on top.

    A larger facility with ample parking that could also possibly house a courtroom and the sheriff's department would be better, he said.

    Josh Todd, District Three Supervisor and board president, said there is no doubt that more jail space will have to be added.

    "I'm a fan of using what land we have and trying not to buy more," Todd said. "But the land we own may not be in a good location so that's something we are going to have to look at."

    Location is a major factor, Sollie said.

    "While there is enough space to add on about 50 beds, that would not provide us with much relief. The judges, both municipal and justice court, are very limited on confining misdemeanor violators," Sollie said. "Of our 300 and something inmates that we are responsible for, 90 percent of them are here on felony charges. They have committed a felony against someone in the Meridian, Marion or Lauderdale County."

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