For years, Bristol, Virginia has been caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to its fraught jail overcrowding dilemma. Easy answers are nonexistent, and the proverbial can — mentioned a number of times during City Council meetings — has been kicked down the road several times. At its April 27 meeting, the City Council unanimously approved negotiating with the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority to take its prisoners.
While the move could permanently close the city’s aging jail, we applaud the council’s decision; in fact, we believe that the choice is the only viable option for the city’s future.
Bristol, Virginia’s 51-year-old jail is certified to hold 67 inmates and can accommodate 134 with bunk beds. However, the size of its average daily census — anywhere between 150 and 160 — means some inmates regularly sleep on mats on the tile floors.
The real issue is the more than 100 other prisoners the city is responsible for — all of which the city is paying other Virginia jails to house.
This fiscal year, the city allocated $1 million just for housing prisoners in other jails — over and above the sheriff’s $3 million budget. With less than $300,000 remaining and three months of bills in this fiscal year, even that may not be enough.
Further, the proposed fiscal 2021-22 budget ups that amount to $1.2 million.
This entirely foreseeable overcrowding crisis has been building steadily for years. The city now finds itself at nothing less than a boiling point.
The number of inmates in the city system has never been higher than it is right now. The steady surge in the prison population is bursting the city’s already strained capacity, to the point that action is needed — now.
If the jail had been built more recently, it would be in clear violation of current state standards at roughly 230% capacity. However, the facility was “grandfathered” into standards nearer to its construction and is only allowed to operate now as a result. As population has increased, the issues of overcrowding have only gotten worse.
The crisis of the jail’s age has become more apparent and inevitable every year. Companies that built and maintained critical jail infrastructure such as doors have gone out of business in the past half century, and parts are scarce. Pipes leak. Heating and electricity require regular repairs. And there is no air conditioning — for inmates or correctional officers.
All of these things come with a cost. City officials have estimated that the facility has less than 10 years of viable use remaining. The clock is ticking.
Clearly, the time to make bold decisions for the future of the city’s inmate population, staff, and facilities has arrived. City officials have alternately proposed two solutions over the past several years: build a new jail or join the regional authority.
Building a new jail was once an alluring possibility; it offered the chance to keep or expand local jobs and maintain control. However, the cost of a new facility would be between $50 million and $90 million. That’s money that the city not only doesn’t have, but can’t borrow due to debt limits hampered by The Falls development and the landfill.
A new jail was never a solution; it was an unaffordable Band-Aid on a much larger problem.
The city has actually considered — and rejected — the regional authority option three times already, but made no change because it was more expensive than staying the course.
That time has passed.
As vice mayor, current Mayor Bill Hartley said that while the authority may be more expensive in the short-term, it will probably be more cost-effective in the long term. Joining the regional authority shifts inmates to facilities around Southwest Virginia. The city would pay the authority a set rate per inmate per day and would no longer have to maintain its own aging facility.
Hartley, at the April 27 meeting, alluded to the fact that previous negotiations with the regional authority included securing employment for impacted city corrections officers. Time will tell, but, hopefully, many current jail employees would be able to find work there.
Importantly, the City Council’s move also helps to avoid the possibility of a real human crisis in housing far too many inmates in a crumbling structure.
Now, as Mayor Hartley put it: “It’s been said we kicked the can down the road. I think we’ve kicked it about as far as we can.”
The time for talking is over.
We applaud the efforts of those working in the jail to keep it operational, as well as those working to decrease the prison census. Those efforts have won the city some precious time, but it’s running out.
We now call on the city to join the Southwest Regional Jail Authority as soon as possible. Doing so is the only viable choice for the long-term health of Bristol, Virginia.