Walworth County Jail officials struggle with capacity
Overcrowding at the jail in the Walworth County Law Enforcement Center has officials looking for ways to tackle th problem. Space is available in unused portions of the Huber dorm, but security concerns make that option problematic.
ELKHORN On any given night at the Walworth County Jail, at least 33 inmates sleep on the floor.
Instead of regular cells, they stay on improvised accommodations in a basketball court supposed to be available for other inmates' recreation.
The jail has 191 beds for inmates without work-release privileges. But the place is running at capacity 14 years after it was built on the edge of Elkhorn's east side.
The problem leaves Sheriff David Graves and Undersheriff Kurt Picknell trying to figure out how to get inmates off the floor and have enough space to house future perpetrators.
"The average person will say, 'Well, who cares if they sleep on the floor' because they're inmates, they committed crimes," Graves said. "But it's about security.
"If we have people sleeping on the floor, we have to bring in extra staff to watch those guys because we already have one guy watching up to 48 guys in one pod."
There seems to be no easy answer, he added.
The lay of the land
The building is divided into Huber dorms for inmates with work-release privileges, jail for those awaiting trial and jail for those who have been sentenced to serve time.
The Huber dorm has 321 beds. Fifty of them are not available because of a tight county budget that won't allow Graves to hire 10 extra correctional officers needed to run the place. About 171 inmates will stay at the Huber dorm on a regular day.
The problem lies on the jail side, which has 191 beds and 210 inmates.
"When you look at the map, you wonder why there are so many people on the floor," Picknell said of the 33 inmates without proper accommodations. "That happens because there are other cells utilized for medical needs or other needs."
Short-term solutions, long-term goals
"There are dorms that have never been opened, and they've never been opened because we never got the staff for it," Graves said. "It was known by the (county) board we needed 15 correctional officers. We fell into some tough economic times, and that did not allow us to open that facility."
Instead, Graves hired five correctional officers. The remaining 10 would be needed to open the 50-bed section of the Huber dorm yet to be used.
"The quick answer would be trying to figure out a way to shuffle that space," Graves said of the extra Huber beds.
But shuffling inmates to the Huber dorms could be problematic because jail inmates don't have work-release privileges. Mixing them with inmates allowed to leave for work could create headaches for jail staff, Picknell said.
So Graves and Picknell continue to explore options that could help now and set the stage for future years at the jail.
There is always the possibility of building additions to the facility, Graves said.
"The problem with building more is that along with that comes increasing staff," he said.
And with added staff come long-term expenses for salary and benefits.
Graves and Picknell also are working with probation and parole officers to decrease the number of inmates held in jail for probation violations.
On a recent morning, the number of inmates on probation holds was more than 30.
If they could be cleared from the jail side and get back on Huber, 31 inmates would be able to get off the floor and have cells and beds once again.
But striking a balance between who should be locked up and who could be left out is complicated, Picknell said.
District Attorney Phil Koss faces the same challenge.
"It's a delicate balance between finances, the reality of how much money there is to spend on corrections and protecting the public," he said. "So if we have to come up with a policy that reduces the amount of time they (inmates) spend in custody, then we need to be open to come up with a reasonable term. Something like the CATE program."
Commitment, Accountability, Treatment and Evaluation is a volunteer program offered to those convicted of their third and subsequent drunken-driving offenses.
Instead of keeping them locked up, jail officials hook up criminals to electronic monitoring devices that notify authorities if that person is consuming alcohol or somewhere that person is not supposed to be—such as a bar.
That tight supervision has alleviated some of the struggles at the jail by returning offenders to the community.
No CATE program graduates have been known to re-offend, Koss said.
The idea for the CATE program came from the Walworth County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, a group of representatives from every face of the county's law enforcement and judicial systems.
The committee has been around for about three years and has worked to evaluate policies and deal with long-term issues in Walworth County law enforcement.
"It's not an attempt to influence judges or DAs' discretions, but at least to open our eyes to the ramifications that our policies may have to the different parts of the system, specifically in the context of overcrowding in the jail," said Koss, who chairs the committee.
Along with the CATE program, the committee also is evaluating offering more programs for inmates hoping to get high school diplomas.
"Jail officials did a study on recidivism rates of those who obtained GEDs—high school equivalent degrees," Koss said. "[The re-offender rate] seems to be substantially lower on inmates who worked on their GEDs.
"So do we give people incentives by giving them credit time if they obtain their GED?"
Koss said the programs are not offered for dangerous inmates or those who have prison sentences.
Perpetrators can be sentenced up to only a year in county jail per felony charge, less than that per misdemeanor charge. Sentences longer than one year per charge warrant prison time at one of the state facilities managed by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
The Walworth County Board of Supervisors is discussing funding to hire a third-party company to study the overcrowded county jail.
"There is money allocated to develop a comprehensive study to solve our problem," Picknell said.
Now the board needs to decide when to use the funds. Graves said that likely will happen in 2010.
While the board works on the long-term solution, Graves and Picknell continue to work with their local staff to figure out a short-term fix.
"What do we do?" Graves said. "We keep thinking."
"It's the byproduct of protecting a county," Picknell added.