Overcrowding at Washington Co. Detention Center hits all-time high, sheriff suspending work program


FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA)— Jail overcrowding is forcing the Washington County Sheriff to suspend a popular Work Release Program.

The number of detainees hit an all-time high this past weekend.

Sheriff Tim Helder says the detention center has been in crisis mode for several years because of overcrowding, but over 80 people sleeping on the floor calls for desperate measures.

“In particular our sex offenders hit an all time high at eighty-three,” he said.

In an effort to free up some space, Helder suspended a work release program on Friday. “Is this a great option? Is it a great thing that’s gone? No.”

Inmates with non-violent misdemeanors were able to go out into the community and receive extra time-served credit.

They were housed in separate barracks.

“We moved 31 or 32 of our general population lower-end offenders over to the work release barracks…emptied that out.” Helder said.

Helder regrets the impact will be felt in the community, like at the local animal shelter.

“We provide detainee/inmate labor to do the cleanup and the weekend work to give the folks that are actually working there a break,” he said.

While the move frees up 24 beds, overcrowding is far from over.

“If Washington County wanted to get people off the floor of the Washington County Jail in 30 days time, they could send a notice today to cancel the agreement we have with the federal government to house federal prisoners,” said Beth Coger, the co-founder of Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition.

She’s pushing for what she calls more innovative solutions.

“Cancel the agreement with the feds, cancel Madison County, and just take care of our own people,” Coger said. “We participate in 287(g) and I don’t think we should do that…we have prisoners from ICE and U.S. Marshals that we should not be housing.”

Helder points to population growth as a possible cause of overcrowding.

He says at this point, his hands are tied.

“We’ve got a work group that we started, we are participating with Bail Project…trying to reduce our numbers. Obviously, that’s not had a great impact, if any at all to date.”

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office has hired a company to perform a study on the criminal justice system, and make recommendations on what they should change.

That study should be complete within six months.

As you’re probably already aware, the Washington County Detention Center has been in crisis mode for several years due to overcrowding, and even though we have taken many steps to help ease the overcrowding, it continues to be of critical concern.  Because of this continuing critical concern, and in an effort to keep detainees off the floor, Sheriff Helder has made the difficult decision to suspend, indefinitely, our popular Work Release Program, which allows detainees to work out in the community through government entities such as cities and counties, and allows the detainees to receive extra time-served credit because they’re benefitting and serving the community. By virtue of suspending the program, it immediately freed up 24 beds, which allowed us to move 24 people off the floor.  The Washington County Detention Center is a 710 bed facility, but because of classification requirements, according to Arkansas Jail Standards, it is full at approximately 80% capacity (568 beds). Yesterday, the high count was 792. As always, we will continue to try and keep you apprised of the critical issues and concerns we are facing due to our jail overcrowding.

Washington County Sheriff’s Office Facebook Page

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