Federal prisoners in new jail

County might collect millions of dollars each year for housing federal prisoners in new jail

Federal prisoners will be coming to Winnebago County’s new 988- to 1,212-bed, $130 million jail after construction is complete in early 2007, according to a supervisor from the local U.S. Marshal’s office. However, an official from the U.S. Marshal’s office said negotiations have yet to take place.

Deb Lomonaco, supervisor for the U.S. Marshal in Rockford, reacted Jan. 28 to a question about negotiations to house federal prisoners by saying: “I am not aware of any. However, it will be something that will be approached down the road after the jail is built.” She added the jail is too early in its construction to comment on numbers of prisoners, and how much the county will be paid to house each inmate.

Lomonaco’s comment is significant because the federal jail overcrowding lawsuit involving Winnebago County stipulates that the county’s average daily jail population must be decreased to 400 inmates by September 2005. The lawsuit stay-of-litigation also mandates the jail be built to federal jail standards.

If that population level is maintained until jail construction is complete, at least 588 beds will be available to rent in the new jail. Perhaps as many as 812 beds would be available if the new jail is built to its 1,212- bed capacity. Added to that capacity is another 394 beds in the existing jail, which brings the total number of possible beds available for rent to 1,206 in 2007, if county inmates occupy the other 400 beds.

Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers said there are no current negotiations with the federal government concerning housing federal prisoners. He added that incarcerating local prisoners is top priority.

However, he left the door open by saying that if the county did house federal prisoners in the new jail, that possibility would likely correspond with the completion of the new federal courthouse. Completion date for that project is uncertain.

According to a Jan. 14 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, downstate Alton’s new police station, which opened in 2002, is expected to house an average of nearly 15 federal prisoners per day during the first year of its contract with the U.S. Marshal’s office.

Alton officials expect to collect $40 per day, or $218,000 during the first year. The new Alton police station has a capacity for 52 inmates. According to the article, the federal prisoners will be held in Alton for pending trials, post-trial proceedings or other legal matters.

Lomonaco said the rate of pay would be higher in Winnebago County. She expects the pay to be between $50 to $70 per day per prisoner.

Assuming the county houses 400 of its own inmates in the new jail at the time it opens, and the county receives $50 per day to house an average of 500 federal prisoners per year, the county would collect $9.1 million during the year. This estimate would still leave 88 empty beds in the new jail, and an additional 394 empty beds in the existing jail.

At the other end of the range estimate is filling both jails to their capacity, and receiving $70 per day per prisoner. Again, assuming the county houses 400 of its own inmates in the new jail, and housing 1,206 federal prisoners, the county would collect $30.8 million during the year.

Many crime experts, such as Michael Hazlett, professor of Law Enforcement and Justice Administration at Western Illinois University argue jails should be used as a scarce resource, not as a tool for economic development, which is how most local officials have viewed the new jail’s construction. Hazlett also argued that eventually inmates are released back into communities, which may negate crime-fighting efforts, and add to the cost of social services.

Hazlett said jails become “crime university” in which inmates learn and share criminal knowledge and techniques. He emphasized that such a phenomenon is magnified when a large jail is constructed beyond its needed capacity. Instead, Hazlett said efficiencies in the criminal justice system should be implemented to reduce jail overcrowding before increasing jail capacity.

However, such expert recommendations have fallen on deaf ears at the County Board, and by county administrators, such as Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen. As of Jan. 30, Christiansen received $54,100 of his $106,251 in contributions to his campaign from overt construction, development and union interests—the primary beneficiaries of the new jail’s construction.

Christiansen and County Board members have pointed to Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli as the official who could recommend a smaller jail, and implementing all the alternatives before building a new jail. However, Logli has refused to discuss the issue with other public officials and Hazlett, even in light of investigative articles The Rock River Times has published since October 2002, which featured Hazlett and crime expert Dr. Allen Beck—both of whom are familiar with Winnebago County’s jail overcrowding issues. They said the county’s problem with overcrowding is not a capacity issue, but very likely due to inefficiencies in the criminal justice system.

Both have offered their services for free to county officials, but those officials, including Logli and Christiansen, have balked at the offer.

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