Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites


Forced releases reveal hard times at county jail

Sheriff asked to trim additional $600,000 from budget — says it cant be done


Last week, 20 inmates convicted for a variety of crimes, including robbery and hit-and-run, walked free. The Columbia County Jail had reached capacity and couldn’t hold them.

Last year, the jailed averaged more than 11 such “forced releases” per week and expects to hit this number again in 2013 with even more budget cuts coming down the pipeline.

While Sheriff Jeff Dickerson is quick to assure Columbia County residents that inmates charged with serious crimes are not force-released, he added, “We are especially challenged right now to keep enough beds open.”

This often means those charged with lesser crimes spin right through what local law enforcement and attorneys call “the revolving door” of the jail. People convicted on lesser charges and ordered to serve time at the jail might spend less time behind bars due to lack of space.

DickersonUnder current budget constraints, the jail has a funded capacity for 65 local inmates, and rents out even more beds for federal inmates. Dickerson’s office relies heavily on these rented beds to keep the jail funded and viable. If those beds went away — either by a county decision to provide more local beds and fewer rented beds, or if another county with a jail beat out Columbia County’s price and began renting beds at a lower price — there would be a significant drop in money for the jail.

“We’d be left on a very short noose,” said Commissioner Henry Heimuller.

As planning began for the 2013-14 budget, county departments — already faced with an initial $1.7 million gap to fill — were asked to look at their operations and prioritize 20 percent worth of cuts.

By the time the final budget is approved, however, it is unlikely each department will have 20 percent of its funding cut, said Jennifer Cuellar-Smith, the county’s finance and taxation director.

Later, as these lists were examined and adjusted, the finance department asked the Sheriff’s Office to try to cut $600,000 from its budget.

Dickerson said it couldn’t be done.

He came back to Cuellar-Smith with $400,000 worth of cuts. Anything more, he said, and he was worried he wouldn’t be able to run a constitutional jail.

As part of the cuts, the Sheriff’s Office will also cease funding a drug detective position for the Columbia Enforcement Narcotics Team, a position that was paid for by a grant up until the end of last year and will be funded by the Sheriff’s Office until July.

Running a jail is a complex business.

Every inmate must be fed, housed, transported to and from any court hearings, receive any needed medical attention and be observed consistently throughout the day, among other things. Missing or mismanaging any of these steps opens the jail to potential lawsuits.

“We get sued regularly by inmates saying our jail is not constitutional,” Dickerson said. This is routine for any jail facility, he said.

“The $400,000 is all I can do and still keep the jail open this year,” Dickerson said, emphasizing “this year.”

“I don’t know what next year holds for me because another bunch of cuts and we’re done.”