The Mobile City Council will begin debate on giving up ownership of parts of two downtown streets that would allow the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office to expand portions of Metro Jail.
The county is asking the city to vacate portions of Conception and St. Emanuel streets to allow for an expansion of the jail’s intake area — called a sally port — and for an upgrade from minimum to medium security for an area of the jail, so it could house more prisoners.
The $13 million planned expansion would increase the sally port, where inmates are loaded and unloaded, to three lanes, Sheriff Sam Cochran said.
“It would be like a three-lane parking garage,” he said. “We have a small sally port now.”
Cochran said the plans also include an expansion of the jail’s intake and release area. The current space is so small, he said, it can make it hard to process inmates into the jail or release them in a timely manner. The expansion of the area would also include medical and mental health evaluation rooms, he said.
“It’s difficult now to do more than one at a time,” Cochran said. “We’ll be able to book them in quicker and release them quicker.”
The expansion would also result in more holding cells, including individual holding cells, Cochran said.
“There are minimal holding cells now,” he said.
The Conception Street vacation would allow for the area around the expanded sally port to be more secure. It would allow jail officials to add fencing where there isn’t any now, Cochran said.
“Right now, you could walk up to the sally port,” he said. “People come there and throw things over the fence into the exercise yards. We really don’t need the street open.”
A second phase of the project is also planned. It would include a “hardening” of a minimum-security barracks across St. Emanuel Street from the jail facility. To increase the barracks from a minimum-security building to a medium-security one, Cochran said it would need a different ceiling and windows.
The barracks can now hold 328 minimum-security inmates, but when Phase 2 is complete, Cochran said, it would be able to hold 375 minimum- and medium-security inmates. The medium-security inmates are typically older and have been in the system longer, Cochran said. Those inmates tend to be less of a security risk than maximum security inmates, he said.
This debate comes at a time when many cities and states are dealing with overcrowded jails and prisons. Mobile is no different, but despite a decrease in arrests, Metro Jail is still overflowing with prisoners, Cochran said. This is in part due to unwillingness from officials to put prisoners in state facilities because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Many councilors argued they do not have control over whether or not law enforcement should be making fewer arrests on minor crimes. Councilors said they would simply be looking at the merits of the proposed vacations.
“The City Council can’t do any of that,” Councilman Fred Richardson said when asked about releasing more nonviolent offenders. “We do have the authority to give them more land.”
As for the vacations, Richardson said he’s on board, even before a meeting of the council’s administrative services committee is set to take place Wednesday, Oct. 14.
“They said they need this for safety,” Richardson said. “I will not question them.”
Councilwoman Bess Rich said she also has no objections to the move at this time.
“In listening to the county, they told us it’s a security issue,” she said.
Giving the issue of public safety, Rich said she is leaning toward Cochran’s position. On the overcrowding issue and low-risk inmate release, Rich said they’re separate issues and advised councilors can only take current information into the debate.
Councilman Joel Daves said he has yet to make up his mind on the issue. Like Rich, Daves has seemed very interested in the issue of city vacations in the past. While there is a new ordinance related to vacations and changes to some of the rules, including how much the city charges, Rich said the county’s request would fall under the old vacation rules, which are less strict.
Only Councilman John Williams outright questioned some of the county’s proposed moves.
“It’s perfectly clear to me to vacate the street in between the prison and the barracks,” he said. “It just makes sense. The other road, I’m trying to make sense of it.”
Williams argued the county doesn’t necessarily need the Conception Street vacation yet. He said they might be able to wait on it.
“When you need it or it becomes a problem, come back and get it,” he said. “I’m kind of in-between on it.”
Councilwoman Gina Gregory, who is chairwoman of the administrative services committee, wrote in an email the debate on Wednesday could include a number of folks impacted by the decision.
“We’ve reached out to county commissioners, the sheriff and any business owners who would like input or to ask questions,” Gregory wrote. “I expect we’ll go over the proposals in depth and allow for questions and/or statements from councilmembers and anyone in attendance at the meeting.”
As for businesses impacted, there are a number of bail bonding companies located on both Conception and St. Emanuel streets. While several owners have complained to Cochran, he put those arguments into perspective.
“The jail came first and then the bonding companies followed,” he said.
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