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Fire marshals inspect jail

ACLU says county ‘better take care of this fast’

Staff writer

Marion County was awaiting a decision Tuesday whether its overcrowded jail violates fire code and must stop accepting inmates.

The jail was two inmates over capacity when an inspector from the Kansas fire marshal’s office examined it Monday.

“We just have to wait and see what the fire marshals do,” Sheriff Rob Craft said afterward. “They may tell us to shut the doors.”

The fire marshal’s office declined to release results of the inspection, pending receipt of a request for the necessary documents under the Kansas Open Records Law.

Hoch Publishing, publisher of this newspaper, filed an official request for the documents Tuesday morning.

“The only issue with the fire marshals is the number of inmates in the facility,” Craft said. “Ideally, I’d like to have zero. That’s not possible. A good working number is six or seven inmates, and that’s not possible either.”

The jail, which had 13 inmates Monday, housed as many as 18 at one point last week.

Over the first months of 2010, Craft said, the largest number of inmates in the jail, which has an official capacity of 11, had been 15 in March.

He noted to several instances in which 12 or 13 inmates had been in the jail at the same time over the past six months. Peak occupancy figures for July have yet to be compiled.

When the jail exceeds capacity, excess inmates sleep on mats on cell floors. The mats elevate them three or four inches off the floor, Craft said.

Forcing inmates to sleep on floors has been found to violate their civil rights. County jails in Los Angeles and Chicago both faced federal court action after they were found to have illegally required inmates to sleep on floors.

“Overcrowding conditions, generally speaking, have been found to be unconstitutional,” said Dan Winter, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri. “Courts historically have found overcrowding cases to be unconstitutional for cruel and unusual punishment.

“They better take care of this fast; the county is opening itself up to significant legal problems.”

Efforts to construct a new jail have been on hold since November, the last time the Marion County Law Enforcement and Public Safety Center Committee held a meeting.

The group requested an opinion from the state attorney general’s office on the legality of a proposed financing plan in November.

The attorney general’s office responded to the proposal Thursday, saying the tax proposed — a flat fee for each residence in the county — had never been attempted in state history.

Marion County Commission discussed the opinion at a meeting Friday.

Commissioner Dan Holub said there didn’t appear to be any case laws supporting or opposing the proposal.

Commission Chairman Randy Dallke said he thought the jail committee needed to reconvene.

“It’s an old jail,” committee chairman Mike Kleiber said. “I don’t want to speculate on what the committee is going to recommend.”

Commissioners plan to meet with Craft at 9 a.m. Thursday to discuss the jail.

“I think the commission are going to have to make a decision before too long,” Kleiber said.

Kleiber said the jail committee has yet to commit to a time and place for a meeting, but he has contacted committee members and expects a meeting sometime in the third week of August.

Last modified Aug. 5, 2010

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