FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA) — The Washington County Detention Center is filled to the brim, and county leaders can’t come to a solution on how to fix it. Sheriff Tim Helder says he’s still calling the overcrowding issue at the jail a crisis.
Approximately 70 people sleep on the floor each night, and that number isn’t going down any time soon if the Quorum Court can’t come to a decision to fund a multi-million dollar expansion or find different alternatives.
One former inmate is now speaking out over the living conditions.
Rebecca Allen spent four nights in jail following a DWI arrest. “You can barely breathe without somebody else going, hey, your breath stinks.”
Allen recounts why she decided she shouldn’t stay silent about the living conditions. “This is not right, because we could all get real sick,” she says. “[It’s] overly crowded.”
Helder says he’s been communicating the issue for years.
“The federal courts require so much space to be within their mandates, and that’s why they don’t have more bunks in a block, because that’s the maximum we have achieved. When we get into overcrowding scenarios, by virtue of us putting more people in there, we’re kind of knowingly in violation of that standard. That’s not a place I want to be.”
Helder says he’s been reducing overcrowding by releasing misdemeanor and non-violent offenders at a rate of 200 per month, providing ankle monitoring when appropriate, staying in communication with law enforcement to seek alternative sentencing, among other ways.
“All I can do is sound the alarm and say we’re in these conditions. I don’t have the ability to fund anything, that’s the Quorum Courts job — to agree that what I’m presenting is accurate and then to come up with a funding mechanism,” Helder said.
The Quorum court is currently trying to find alternatives to a $38 million, 600-bed detention center expansion proposed last year.
On Thursday, the Quorum Court was split when voting to spend $100,000 dollars on an independent study to determine what the needs are for the county’s criminal justice system.
For now, Helder says he’s still caught in the middle and back to square one.
“I’m going to keep sounding the alarm and it will be up to the court to decide how are we going to fund this, or just tell me sheriff — we are not going to fund it.”
Allen adds, “I understand that we are being punished for stuff that we have done, okay fine. But we have rights, and we want to be clean and safe too.”
Because of the tie vote, the ordinance for the study will be on the agenda for the next Quorum Court meeting in July.