The Gila County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved a $806,000 contract to build a new 45-bed women’s jail in Globe to relieve dangerous overcrowding at a cost per cell of about one-third the national average.
The new jail facility should help the county head off a lawsuit — since the county averages 33 women a night in a vintage jail built to accommodate 18. Jail Commander Jim Eskew said the new jail should open late next year, alleviating serious health and safety problems in the current, aging facility.
“We’ve had three or four women in a two-person cell,” said Eskew. When that happens, we’re forced to keep the cell doors open so that they can spread out into the day areas, and you can imagine under those kinds of conditions how hard it is to maintain security.”
Inadequate, crowded jail conditions had previously prompted the U.S. Justice Department to sue the county and force expensive changes in the county’s detention system. Gila County has a 27-bed facility in Payson, a 152-bed men’s jail in Globe and an 18-bed women’s jail in Globe. The federal oversight lasted from 1996 to 2003.
“We’re not interested in trying to attract any attention that’s going to bring the U.S. Justice Department back to file sanctions again,” said Eskew. “So the county is doing the only thing they can do to scrape enough money together to increase the bed capacity.”
Eskew said crowding in the women’s facility presented the most acute problem, due to the dramatic increase in the number of women in custody and the severity of their crimes.
About 6 to 8 percent of the people in the county jails are detained in connection with violent crimes — a percentage that applies to both men and women, Eskew noted.
The women face similar charges to the men, for the most part. “DUIs, drug charges, domestic violence — it just seems the charges escalate as time goes on.”
He noted that women now account for about 25 percent of the total bookings “and it has increased over time.”
All told, Gila County books 5,000 people into the jail system in the course of the year — a staggering 10 percent of the county’s total population of around 50,000. About 46 percent of those booked into jail live in Northern Gila County.
“When you’re booking 5,000 people into a system with about 170 beds, then you’ve got some major problems.”
Ultimately, Eskew predicted the county will have to seek voter approval for a county jail tax, similar to the one rejected by voters in 2007.
Complaints in Northern Gila County with the proposed location of the jail on Main Street and the lopsided distribution of county facilities played a key role in the defeat of that ballot measure.
Northern Gila County provides nearly two-thirds of the county’s tax base and more than half of its population, but most county facilities remain located in Globe.
However, the county did manage to get a smoking deal on construction of the new, 40-bed women’s jail.
Nationally, jail cells cost about $79,000 per bed, but the bid on Gila County’s new women’s facility came in at closer to $20,000 per bed, said Eskew.
The county rejected the first round of bids when administrators decided they were all too high. A second round of bidding came in significantly lower.
“The economy was in our favor at this particular time,” said Eskew. “I think you can build more square footage for less right now than you could three years ago, so it’s an opportune time to build.”
JE Bowen Construction of Mesa submitted the low bid at $806,000. The other six bids ranged from $854,000 to $1.1 million.