In the last 180 days, the Gila County jail has released more than 2,000 prisoners early because of space constraints. County officials fear the state will compound this problem if the coming sales tax vote fails and roughly 170 state prisoners return to Gila County, most of them maximum custody.
“This is a real, real impact to public safety,” interim County Manager John Nelson said at a recent supervisors’ meeting. “I don’t know how we’re going to deal with this. To me, Madam Chair, this is absolutely crazy.”
Revised estimates place the financial burden of housing state prisoners at $3.5 million because Gila County would have to pay $60 per day per prisoner to house these inmates in jails with available beds.
County officials initially estimated the cost at $630,000, but revised the figures after speaking with Jail Commander Jim Eskew.
Eskew says the jail would be 51 percent over capacity if just five percent of the county inmates released early were still incarcerated.
“One out of 20 is ridiculous,” said Eskew. “I threw that out there just to show you the absurd situation that we’re in.” Recently, an average of 12.5 prisoners per day have been released early.
He added, “I’d have no place to put these people. I’d have to put them on the roof. It’s just totally ridiculous.”
The county started releasing prisoners early in 2007 after voters failed a jail district sales tax, according to Eskew. The measure would have included a jail in Payson. Although 53 percent of arrests occur in southern Gila County, Eskew said that gap is narrowing.
“I expect it to be 50/50,” he said.
Already, the Globe jail holds more inmates than beds.
Just 13 beds are available for maximum-security prisoners, but the jail currently holds 18 maximum-security inmates.
Similarly, the jail averaged 33 females per day in an 18-bed facility last year. Extra prisoners sleep on portable plastic beds, referred to as “boats,” and mattresses on the floor.
The county bonded to build a 40-bed addition to house females, and Eskew says that project is about a year away from completion.
Globe’s jail was built in 1982 when Gila County’s population was about 5,000, compared to the roughly 52,000 that live here today.
The jail “was big enough then for the amount of population that existed,” Eskew said. “It is woefully inadequate at this particular time.”
Compounding space constraints, 25 percent of all bookings are people who don’t live in Gila County. Consequently, the equivalent of 10 percent of Gila County’s population is in jail. Eskew said that proportion exceeds that of other counties by a nearly two-to-one ratio.
People come to Gila County in the summer to enjoy the weather, fishing, hiking and boating, and in the winter for a fun escape.
“However, as with all good things, there lies a little bitter,” wrote Eskew in an e-mail. “While enjoying the good life, many are arrested for various offenses and the Sheriff’s Office has no choice but to take custody of the individual until he/she is adjudicated.”
And so jail officials have resorted to early release for those prisoners they feel aren’t a substantial threat to society. Some are released into society, while others transition into a place like Steps House, which offers counseling.
Most inmates released early have drug-related charges or child support offenses although those convicted of other, less violent crimes are considered as well, said Eskew.
Officials consider current and prior charges and convictions, time served, and an inmate’s behavior while in custody. Some people deemed safe to themselves and the community are released at the time of initial arraignment, with court permission.
For instance, one man was released to Steps House about two-and-half months early after serving nine-and-a-half months for attempted armed robbery.
Another man was released to Steps House the same day he was taken into custody on charges of possessing drug paraphernalia and aggravated harassment/
domestic violence. His original sentence was 90 days and 18-months probation.
In 2004, Sheriff John Armer implemented a method of alerting courts of an inmate’s behavior. The judge can then either increase or decrease the sentence accordingly.
While there aren’t statistics that show how early release affects recidivism rates, Eskew says he sees few prisoners awarded early release seeking counseling for whatever issues like addiction or compulsion ail them.
“Any release always impacts the community,” Eskew said. Still, “I don’t believe that it’s that large an impact.”
Eskew says the only solution is to build a bigger jail. “It’s unfortunate to say,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have nothing else to handle the situation. Crime today is not like it was years ago.”
The downtrodden economy has contributed to higher levels of crime, and the Sheriff’s Office also deals with human smugglers and illegal immigrants that travel through the county.
“Most people, 99 out of 100, do not know or have any idea of the ramifications of what we go through daily at the Gila County Sheriff’s Office as far as holding prisoners,” Eskew said. “In my opinion, it will get worse as the bookings increase.”