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— BENTONVILLE - For weeks, the LED sign outside of the Benton County Jail on Southwest 14th Street has notified passersby that the jail population is on the rise.

All summer, the number of inmates housed at the county jail rose almost as fast as the temperatures. The only difference today: Outside temperatures have dropped;

the prison count has not.

“Ten years ago, we had 250 inmates. Here it is now 10 years later, and we have got 500. Where are we going to be 10 years from now?” said Capt. Rob Holly, who oversees the county jail. “We are OK right now, but at some point, we are going to have to expand. It is inevitable.”

The county jail has 503 beds available for prisoners.

On Thursday morning, 504 inmates were housed there, Holly said, noting that the main reason the county jail is filled to capacity is because of a slowdown in moving prisoners into the Arkansas Department of Correction.

When a person arrested in Benton County is sentenced to serve time in the state prison system, the Arkansas Department of Correction is charged with transporting the inmate from the county jail to state prison, Benton County Sheriff Keith Ferguson said.

Currently, 124 prisoners are housed in the county jail awaiting transport to state prisons, many of which could be waiting for three to five months, Holly said.

In order to keep the county jail operational, jail deputies have found themselves getting creative.

Two-man cells are now housing three prisoners, and the eight holding cells in the jail’s booking area are being used to house prisoners whoneed to be kept separate from the jail’s general population because of a communicable disease or their status as sex offenders, Holly said.

“Keeping the separates separate is the biggest issue we have,” Holly said.

One example is the sex offender population that has to be kept away from the general population. The sex-offender portion of the jail was built to hold 32 prisoners. On Thursday, there were 46.

The jail’s population has not gone unnoticed by the Arkansas Department of Correction, Ferguson said.

Twelve years ago, before the new jail was constructed, the county jail was almost closed because of overpopulation. Each year since 2007, the jail has been cited for being understaffed in relation to the amount of inmates housed there, Ferguson said.

“I try to manage what we have got with the money we have got, but we are running real tight right now,” Ferguson said.

To help solve the county jail’s influx of new prisoners, Ferguson proposed three years ago that a new minimum-security section be added.

A little more than $1 million has been saved for the project, he said.

After an architect informed Ferguson the project would cost $2 million, it was placed on hold by the Benton County Quorum Court, where it has remained for the last year, Ferguson said.

“It is kind of in their ballpark,” Ferguson said of the Quorum Court.

The proposed minimumsecurity building is designed to house an additional 120 prisoners, an addition that would delay the need to build another $16 million jail pod for at least four or five years, Ferguson said.

News, Pages 21 on 10/07/2009

Print Headline: Jail is full - now what? The Sheriff’s Office is getting creative, but expansion is needed soon.

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