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'The county's albatross'

Henry County Council member Clay Morgan, left, addresses members of the Henry County Commissioners, the New Castle City Council and New Castle Mayor Greg York, in blue, during a special meeting Tuesday. The various government officials met at the county courthouse to discuss the need for a newcommunitydetention center.

By TRAVIS WEIK - tweik@thecouriertimes.com

Henry County’s jail is overcrowded and crumbling underfoot. The design is obsolete and dangerous for both inmates and correctional officers.

There is a federal court case underway because a man was allegedly beaten to death there.

Elected officials and members of the public gathered Tuesday evening in the Henry County Courthouse to hear what the county plans to do about the jail.

“The facility that we have in Henry County is embarrassing and degrading,” New Castle Mayor Greg York said during the joint meeting of city and county officials.

No one argued otherwise.

Henry County Council member Richard Bouslog called the Henry County Jail “the county’s albatross,” a curse that holds back the rest of the community.

Again, no one raised an objection.

James Robertson, from VRJS, LLC of Denver, Colorado, started an objective study in 2017 about Henry County’s criminal justice system. Specifically, Robertson looked at the jail.

Robertson’s findings were the focus of Tuesday’s meeting.

According to Robertson’s analysis, the Henry County Jail has seen a 10 percent increase in the daily jail population over the last three years.

The jail and the newly-opened Transition Center can hold a total of 176 people, but Robertson recommended that the jail’s maximum “operating capacity” should be no more than 150.

This would give Sheriff Ric McCorkle and his staff the ability to safely manage inmates who need separated from others for different reasons, Robertson said.

Henry County Jail routinely has more than 176 inmates and far exceeds a daily average of 150, Robertson said.

“You need to do something with your facility,” Robertson told the assembled community leaders Tuesday.

The positives

Part of Robertson’s report focused on positive steps that the local criminal justice system has taken to help relieve some of the strain on the aging jail.

Robertson noted that the new specialty drug and veteran’s courts are helping.

Sheriff McCorkle said that while cops are still fighting local drug problems, he has already seen some successes through the specialty courts. Henry Circuit Court 2 Judge Kit Crane agreed that the drug problems likely aren’t going away, but the new court programs are helping fight it.

Robertson also noted that Henry County Jail personnel try to give inmates opportunities to change their personal behaviors or pursue educational opportunities while incarcerated.

The facility just isn’t designed to support those programs, Robertson said.

“There’s not a no-cost solution for Henry County,” Robertson said.

While specific numbers were not discussed Tuesday, the decision to move forward ultimately fell at the feet of the Henry County Council because a new facility will have to be funded, at least partially, through local tax dollars. 

Robertson said it will be several years before the county has a new jail.

Council member Clay Morgan acknowledged that the process seems slow but said this is necessary to make sure that everyone involved, from elected officials to everyday citizens, knows that the county is getting what it needs.

After a two-hour public meeting Tuesday night, the Henry County Council agreed to accept Robertson’s recommendations to pursue a new facility.

The next step is for the Henry County Commissioners to bring a formal proposal to the July 25 council meeting for official vote.