Overcrowding, understaffing becomes a growing concern inside Washington County Jail

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) – A Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee for the Washington County Jail are working to address overcrowding and understaffing problems.

This time last year, the detention population dropped down to the 300-400 range as a result of the pandemic. As of Thursday, September 30, the committee reported 701 inmates and detainees in the jail.

“As soon as Covid hit, we were faced with this crisis of getting people out of the jail so we started releasing a lot of people on recognizance,” said Washington County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett.

Durrett said failure to appear rates have doubled, though, so that effort to release has been scaled down. He added the struggle is also impacted by serious offenders and those under federal jurisdiction.

‘For the most part, we haven’t been able to accomplish much in terms of getting cases filed, so we’re not getting a whole lot of the serious offenders out, either- through a plea deal or through a jury trial.”

The jail requires people coming in to quarantine due to COVID-19 precautions.

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder said 180 are currently in quarantine, with 127 of them having to sleep on the floor due to a lack of space in quarantine pods.

Durrett said the detainees are not tested for COVID-19 when being booked, but are after quarantining to ensure they’re not bringing the virus inside the general population.

“It’s a sad state of affairs to have people sleeping on the floor, and I’ve seen those little mattresses they sleep on,” said Beth Coger, Co-Founder of Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition. ‘We’ve just got to do better.”

This is all happening as the one number the jail does not want to decrease- staff count- is taking a hit. Helder said the jail is down 41 employees, which is equivalent to a shift and a half of workers.

“This is a side effect of Covid, obviously,” said Durrett. “You’ve got the actual effects of individual inmates and employees who contract it.”

Helder reported more than 500 positive COVID-19 cases within his center since the beginning of the pandemic, however there are none right now.

Coger said she fears the loss in staff members could have an effect on everyone inside the jail.

“With so many people in our jail right now and the understaffing,” Coger said. “I’m sure it’s even more dangerous for everyone than it usually is.”

Durrett said he and other Washington County officials are thinking outside the box to bring this high volume of inmates and detainees down. He currently has gotten 40 people out on ankle monitors and plans to add more who would be eligible.

Probation and parole is also stepping up, according to Durrett. Efforts include limiting the number of people they send back to jail for probation and parole violations and finding other alternatives as sanctions.

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