EL RENO — Faced with a critically crowded jail, Canadian County officials turned twice to the voters for help. Both times, the voters said no.
So county commissioners came up with a way to provide cell space for years into the future, without a tax increase. Construction is a few months from completion on a $4.9 million, 120-bed dormitory-style addition adjacent to the existing jail.
In 2008, county voters rejected a 35-cent sales tax to pay for a new county jail. Three years later, another plan met defeat at the polls.
That forced commissioners to take a step back and come up with a way to build jail space without raising taxes, said Board of Commissioners Chairman David Anderson.
“Ideally we would have built a much larger facility,” Anderson said of the project that began in November, “but this was what we could do.”
Built in the mid-1980s, the jail was designed to hold 72 inmates. Occupancy had climbed to about 100 before the state fire marshal gave the county a mandate about a decade ago to hold the jail population to 72.
Commissioners sought approval in May 2008 of a 35-cent, 15-year sales tax to finance a $25 million county jail, but the proposal was defeated 2,985 to 1,321.
In April 2011, commissioners proposed diverting 0.1 percent from the 35-cent tax that supported the Gary E. Miller Children's Justice Center for financing construction of a jail. That proposal lost by a vote of 4,806 to 4,332.
After the 2011 election, Anderson said, commissioners “scoped the jail down to a size we could afford.”
“We've been able to borrow money based on our receipts. We're paying for this out of the general fund, with no bond or new taxes,” Anderson said.
In 2008, the county made arrangements to house prisoners in Dewey, Grant and Pottawatomie counties.
“We make it work,” said jail administrator Capt. Robert Stuart. The multicounty prisoner housing solution continues while construction proceeds.
Construction of the 18,000-square-foot jail addition is about two weeks ahead of schedule, Anderson said, with completion expected in late October. The target date for inmates to move into the revamped jail is Nov. 1.
The extra space should bring total capacity to about 200 prisoners, Anderson said. The current inmate census averages 175 to 180 prisoners spread across the four counties.
“It's going to be a relief, financially as well as stress-wise for our law enforcement to keep the prisoners here,” Anderson said. The county has remained compliant with the occupancy limit but is paying $20 per day per inmate to house inmates in other counties, County Clerk Shelley Dickerson said.
Canadian County bought two van-type buses three years ago to transport prisoners, Undersheriff Chris West said. The vehicles were converted for prisoner transport and can hold up to 15 inmates each.
Those vehicles will be put to use elsewhere once the jail expansion is completed, West said.
West said he and Sheriff Randall Edwards opposed taking money from the Children's Justice Center to build a new jail.
“We feel that one of the reasons for our county's low crime rate is our strong juvenile justice system,” West said. He said the county's incarceration rate is about 2 per 1,000 population, compared to the statewide average of about 4 per 1,000 population.
The Children's Justice Center provides services that include assessment, prevention, education, probation, treatment, independent living services, home-based services and detention.
In July, commissioners awarded a contract to Smith-Doyle Contractors Inc. of Cordova, Tenn., to oversee construction of the jail addition. Anderson said the $4.9 million price tag includes architectural work and financing.
Commissioners are overseeing the project themselves, Anderson said, using a design team and construction manager. The architect is Spirit Architecture Group of Collierville, Tenn. The two companies form SouthBuild Team, which specializes in rural county detention facilities, said team construction manager Don Abernathy.
The jail addition will have features that include a larger kitchen, laundry facilities, a visitation area and a new booking area, Anderson said.
“Our goal is to make it safer for officers,” Anderson said. The new booking area will have holding cells, with the area designed to be more secure for jailers.