Regional jail resolve: Increase rate or inmates?

Jordan Crawford | 1/15/2014, 9:41 a.m.
The Hampton Roads Regional Jail is struggling with ideas on how to pay bills.

The Hampton Roads Regional Jail’s governing body is planning to discuss its budget soon in hopes of deciding how to pay hovering bills.

The board has two choices: raise the rate its four member cities pay per inmate each day by as much as $25, or find more inmates.

Andy Protogyrou, a Norfolk city councilman and chairman of the regional jail authority, is among those who say there’s an easy solution to the problem: Portsmouth could close its city jail and move its inmates into the regional jail.

“That would keep the rates low and solve Portsmouth’s jail problem,” he said.

However, Portsmouth Sheriff Bill Watson sees the situation differently. He says it would be cheaper for the city to build a new jail close to the courthouse rather than pay the regional jail to house all its inmates.

Looking closely at the regional jail’s and Sheriff Watson’s projected costs shows that moving the inmates to the regional jail is likely the cheaper option.

It needs to house about 1,200 inmates per day to meet its operating budget but is down to about 900. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was housing as many as 400 detainees there daily but has pulled out all but a handful in the past year.

Now the jail must either increase its inmate count to 1,200 or raise its rates.

Protogyrou says the jail authority is working to fill its empty beds without additional Portsmouth jail inmates. The Portsmouth City Jail, which houses about 400 inmates, is old and on waterfront property downtown.

In a phone interview, State Sen. Louise Lucas said she plans to introduce a bill in the state legislature that would legalize casino gambling in Portsmouth. She and others have dubbed the land as a prime spot for a casino.

City officials have come close to studying the two options but have never done so.

What would these options cost?

Watson says building a new city jail would cost between $44 million and $55 million. The regional jail authority says it would cost $54 million to build an addition, which would add about 348 beds.

Without the addition, the regional jail has the capacity to house the Portsmouth jail’s inmates, said Deborah Hand, administration manager for the regional jail.

Yet still, an addition would be needed to house the magistrates, booking facilities and sally port for the city inmates, she said.

Watson said the amount per day that Portsmouth spends on inmates at the city jail is less than what is spent on inmates at the regional jail.

Hampton Roads Regional Jail’s total expenditures per day per inmate are $77.07, compared with Portsmouth’s $67.52, according to state data.

But the regional jail has a medical and mental health facility, houses all of Portsmouth’s female inmates and can handle childbirths.

Portsmouth’s jail houses only male inmates, who are cheaper to incarcerate than pregnant women and those with health problems.

“Building a jail also would require the city to issue bonds to pay for it,” said Steve Heretick, a former Hampton Roads Regional Jail Authority member.