This week, the inmate population at the Coconino County Jail Detention Facility reached "crisis" levels for the third time in three years, according to jail managers.
The Coconino County Sheriff's Office says the surge in prisoners is making it harder to manage various groups of inmates in a way that prevents conflict and is reducing how much money the jail can make from renting beds to state and federal agencies.
And if the problem persists, the jail might have to erect a "tent city" next summer to handle the overflow, especially if it must house more state prisoners for free.
MORE CITE AND RELEASE
The sheriff's office sent a memo to local law enforcement, prosecutors and judges this week asking them to do whatever they can to help alleviate the problem.
That means citing and releasing offenders when safe to do so and expediting the judicial process.
The problem started earlier this summer as the local transient population rose with warming temperatures in Phoenix. Most of the increase in inmates has come from misdemeanor offenders booked on charges like disorderly conduct or simple assaults. Felony bookings have not increased.
"This is the first time we've seen a spike in population to this extent," said Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil. "In summer we usually see population increases because we have a lot more transients coming to Flagstaff, but we've seen an unusually high increase this summer."
The jail typically classifies inmates and separates them by gender, criminal sophistication, past history, mental illness and other characteristics. Mixing potentially incompatible populations can increase the risk of an assault on officers and other inmates.
To manage populations safely, the jail tries to maintain an 80 percent occupancy. It's currently above 90 percent.
The jail has been fortunate there hasn't been an increase in assaults so far, Pribil said. And the number of misdemeanor bookings usually falls off significantly as the winter approaches.
But the surge has implications for the jail's future, with legislation taking effect next summer that will require the county to house state inmates sentenced to less than a year behind bars.
$2 MILLION IN RENTALS AT RISK
Rather than pay the county to house these inmates, the state can force the county accept the inmates for free or force it to pay the state an unspecified daily fee not to take them.
The jail currently generates about $2 million annually by renting beds to agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Office and the Arizona Department of Corrections.
On a typical night, the jail will rent about 100 of its nearly 600 beds. This summer they've only been able to rent around 75 beds per night.
"Right now the (jail) district is solvent and looks to be so for the near future," Pribil said. "This could be a double whammy. At this point we have the capacity to absorb the increase, but that ability has come at the expense of lost rental bed revenue."
TENT CITY EXAMINED
The sheriff's office is trying to stay ahead of the curve by brainstorming ways they can continue to make money and properly manage inmates even if the population continues to swell, or if the situation is exacerbated next summer.
Among the fixes being considered is a tent city similar to the one used by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Pribil says his officers have visited the facilities in the valley and they think it could work here if they needed it. The tent structures have already been picked out, as has a place to put them, but things like restrooms, showers and meal delivery would still have to be arranged. Managing such a facility would also require additional staff for the sheriff's office.
The tent housing could be operational within three weeks, if required, Pribil said.
But a tent city would only be possible here during the summer months.
Adding a full-service detention center in Page could alleviate some of the problem too, so that the county doesn't have to frequently transport short-term inmates.
REGIONAL DETOX CENTER MULLED
A more comprehensive solution might be a regional detox, treatment and rehabilitation center. Pribil recently visited a facility in the Gallup, N.M., area that he thinks might work well in northern Arizona.
That New Mexico center is a partnership between counties, the state and the Navajo Nation, and Pribil says there is discussion about trying to get state funding and a possible partnership with the Navajo Nation for a facility here too.
If they can build a consensus, legislation on such a center could come as soon as the next session.
"As managers we need to look forward and see what might happen and see what might be our response," Pribil said. "We have quite the braintrust here. Our people are students of this profession."
Eric Betz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 556-2250.