Room for more?

Contributed cell in new mercer county jail

Space in Mercer County’s new jail is at a premium, a problem that led to a dustup Wednesday between county commissioners at an agenda review session.

“There should have been some thought to build a 400-bed jail,” said Commissioner Brian Beader. “It’s poor management.”

Beader, who took office in 2004 after work on the new jail started, pointed to a new 450-bed Venango County jail outside Franklin as an example of what should have been done.

The county’s inmate population was about 220 when the $22 million, 282-bed jail was built, Beader said. The jail was completed in January 2006.

Commissioner Olivia M. Lazor, who was on the board when plans were made for the new jail, said one problem is that inmate populations tend to swell to meet the size of any jail.

“Build it and they will come,” she said. “You build a thousand new beds and they’ll fill it.”

Ms. Lazor said the jail was built with an expandable pod design so that it can be easily added onto on the east and west sides. Each additional pod could hold 50 to 60 inmates.

While Ms. Lazor said she did not think it was worth it to expand the jail, she estimated the cost at $1 to $1.5 million to add a pod.

Beader said that number is extremely low and did not think it would be enough to even “move the dirt.”

“As a standing county commissioner, I can’t justify allocating more money toward that jail,” Beader said.

One problem pushing up the jail population is the mandatory minimum sentencing rules that tie judges’ hands, particularly with new drunken driving laws, Beader said.

Where judges once had discretion, they no longer do, he said. “It’s not as if we have a large spike of more individuals coming into the jail, it’s just they’re not leaving as quickly.”

For now, he said the county is going to double-bunk some cells in order to put more inmates in the space they have.

Too many double-bunked cells can be a problem, Beader said, since it is best to keep an inmate isolated till he is evaluated and they know where to place him. “Unfortunately, we may not have that luxury in the near future.”

“We’re doing fine right now, and the judges are aware of it, and the warden is dealing with the situation,” Beader said. But history shows the inmate population will continue to swell, he said.

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