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Inspector limits crowded jail to 4 inmates, orders 24-hour fire watch

Cost of complying with fire marshal’s ruling could exceed $300,000 a year

Staff writers

Marion County Jail, which housed as many as 18 inmates last week, can legally hold no more than four, Marion County Commission was told Thursday.

After an inspection Monday, a state fire marshal ordered that, until jail population is reduced to four, the county must designate an employee with no duties other than to watch for fires 24 hours a day. The county already employs two full-time and several part-time jailers. Employees performing the fire watch, which already has begun, are in addition to those working as jailers.

The county additionally has until Aug. 16 to provide a written plan for correcting the overcrowding and for seeking a waiver if the situation cannot be remedied within 90 days.

County officials had thought the jail had a capacity of 11. The fire marshal’s inspection came after inquiries by the Marion County Record, Hillsboro Star-Journal and Peabody Gazette-Bulletin, which had learned that 18 inmates were being held in the jail last month. Jailers told the newspapers many inmates were forced to sleep on mats on the floor.

At the time of the marshal’s inspection Monday, the jail held 13 inmates.

The state fire marshal’s office initially declined to release its report to the newspapers on Tuesday, requiring the newspapers to file a request under the Kansas Open Records Law. That request was honored Friday, a day after a copy of the report was provided to the newspapers by Sheriff Rob Craft at the commission meeting.

Before receiving the report, the county believed that operating under standards of the American Correctional Association would be sufficient, Craft said. Those standards require about 55 or 60 square feet per inmate, he said. (They actually require less in some circumstances, the newspapers learned Friday.)

According to the fire marshal’s report, the north and south cell blocks in the jail each are 169 square feet, or enough for two or three inmates under the correctional association code though only two each under fire code. The individual cells are 96, 100 and 104 square feet, enough for one inmate each under that code but not enough for any inmates under fire code. Under the correctional association code as described by Craft, total capacity would be seven to nine inmates.

The fire marshal, however, said that 120 square feet were needed per inmate and that the jail’s three individual cells were too small to hold any inmates. Only its north and south cell blocks meet fire code standards, the inspector said, and they can hold only two inmates apiece.

The inspector wrote that he based his ruling on a 1991 edition of the National Fire Protection Association 101 Life Safety Code. Commissioners learned Monday that the lack of fire-suppression sprinklers in the jail was a key factor in arriving at the 120-square-foot figure.

Craft said he thought as many as 90 percent of jails in the state didn’t meet that requirement. For that matter, he doubted whether state or federal prisons met those requirements.

Cost of complying with the fire marshal’s order could be considerable.

Transporting inmates to facilities in other counties could cost the county $300,000 a year, not including initial costs, Craft told commissioners.

He told commissioners he had contacted other counties. Pratt County, 126 miles away, is the nearest jail with enough space to house all of the county’s inmates, he said. Renting space in Pratt County Jail would cost Marion County $40 a day per inmate.

Craft said he would prefer not to send inmates to multiple facilities, and Commissioner Dan Holub agreed.

“If we start going two or three or four different places, that will absolutely bury us,” he said.

With an average daily population of 10 inmates in the first six months of 2010, Craft calculated that transporting inmates to Pratt County would cost $294,300 per year, including all costs. First-year cost would be $377,900 because of the need to purchase two vans to transport inmates, he said.

Holub said the commission had two decisions to make: how to get through the remainder of the year and what to do long-term.

County Attorney Susan Robson said she would appeal the fire marshal’s ruling. She will meet with commissioners Monday to discuss the matter after contacting the fire marshal’s office.

Robson met with commissioners in closed session for 20 minutes Thursday to discuss matters protected by attorney-client privilege. No action was taken on return to open session.

Marion County voters in November 2008 rejected a sales tax increase to finance construction of a new jail.

After the rejection, commissioners appointed a special committee to look at jail options.

The committee last year drafted a plan to finance construction of a new jail with a flat fee per residence.

After the state attorney general’s office stated that the plan would be illegal, the committee drafted an alternative that would tax each property owner the same amount. The committee, which met as often as biweekly, stopped meeting in November while awaiting an opinion from the attorney general on that plan.

The opinion, requested by Robson in June, arrived last week but was inconclusive. Robson said it indicated the plan would be “a bad gamble.”

“Basically,” she said, summarizing what the attorney general's office had written, “we’re not going to make a decision. We don’t think it’s legal or constitutional to do that. You’re opening yourself up to get sued.”

According to a study by the Wichita-based Kansas Policy Institute, Marion County spends dramatically less per resident on law enforcement, including its jail and sheriff’s office, than do any of the 10 Kansas counties closest in population to it. Marion County is spending $54 per person, the study stated, while the average of the 10 counties nearest in population was nearly two and a half times that.

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Last modified Aug. 9, 2010

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