Medical costs yield higher jail expenses
by Rachel Gray
January 04, 2014 12:16 AM | 3752 views | 0 0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cobb County Jail Commander Don Bartlett stands near a large-screen TV connected to the Cobb court system where judges can speak with inmates. <br>Staff/Jeff Stanton
Cobb County Jail Commander Don Bartlett stands near a large-screen TV connected to the Cobb court system where judges can speak with inmates.
Staff/Jeff Stanton
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MARIETTA — The number of people held in the Cobb County jail has been dropping every year since 2010, but the cost of operating the massive complex keeps rising, due largely to higher medical costs.

The daily population has dropped at the Cobb jail by more than 100 inmates in three years, down from an average of 2,082 inmates a day in 2010 to 1,977 in 2013, according to the Cobb Grand Jury’s annual jail report.

Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren said over the past few years, the Cobb jail budget has been short, stretching his deputies to cover overcrowded cell blocks.

“I am glad our numbers are down,” Warren said.

Warren said average daily population at the jail reached as high has 2,600 inmates at one point, and he would like to see the number drop as low as 1,600.

Warren said he credits the dip in the jail population to the efficiency of the Cobb court system.

“We have got an outstanding working relationship with our prosecutors and our judges,” Warren said.

More productive trial proceedings means “folks that weren’t a threat to society” are held at the jail for a shorter time,

Warren said.

Another cause for the dip in inmates housed at the Cobb jail, Warren said, is that for the first time in more than 10 years the state is collecting inmates to start prison sentences in a timely manner.

On any given day, about 200 inmates are waiting to be taken by the Georgia Department of Corrections, Warren said. Warren said the expediency of the Cobb court system was overwhelming the Georgia Department of Corrections, so many inmates who should be in the state’s custody would sit in the Cobb jail for days and even weeks.

Costs per inmate rising, but who pays?

The average cost per inmate is expected to be $65.10 a day for fiscal 2014, which started Oct. 1, according to Col. Don

Bartlett, director of the Cobb jail. This is up $6.55 dollars from the $58.55 dollars spent on each inmate per day in fiscal 2013.

Warren said it is difficult to project the cost per inmate. While the utility bills and the cost to maintain the jail are stable, one never knows about issues such as the health of an inmate.

“It is a numbers game,” Warren said about predicting each inmate’s individual needs.

For instance, Bartlett said medical costs are going up as the population ages.

“It seems lately like almost every day, someone ends up going to the hospital,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said the Cobb jail spends around $5,000 a month just on pharmaceuticals.

“About 95 percent of inmates who are not released on bond … their lifestyle has hurt them physically, from abuse of alcohol and drugs,” Warren said.

Even though these inmates may not have seen a doctor in years “on the outside,” Warren said, “that is the first thing they want” once they get in jail.

Even with doctors, nurses and dentists onsite, the Cobb jail still has to accommodate an inmate’s access to specialists or operating rooms, Bartlett said.

For this reason, the cost per inmate is hard to tally, Bartlett said, when one inmate might cost $5,000 to $6,000 in medical expenses and prescription costs during their short stay.

At any given time, 5 to 15 women at the Cobb jail are pregnant.

Bartlett said he is anxious to see if signing up inmates under the Affordable Care Act will help the jail be reimbursed for health care expenses.

But most health insurance providers do not continue coverage if a patient is in the custody of a jail or prison, Bartlett said. That cost falls to the local Cobb County taxpayer.

The prison population

In fiscal 2013, which ended Sept. 30, the Cobb jail processed 27,470 “book-ins,” according to the grand jury report.

For 30 to 50 percent of people taken to the Cobb jail, the intake section is the farthest point they will go if granted bail.

Maj. Michael Skelton, who has been with the Cobb Sheriff’s office for 28 years, said a person may be held in intake for four to 12 hours before entering into the general population of the jail.

The Cobb jail has a capacity to hold 3,000 pretrial inmates, which Bartlett said is nearly the size of the DeKalb county jail in Decatur.

Seventy-seven percent of inmates stay in the jail for 30 days or less, according to the jail’s annual report. But 30 inmates had been in custody for the entire 2013 fiscal year.

“The goal for us, is we want to keep the people that cannot be put safely back in the community,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said 20 to 25 percent of inmates are “hardened criminals,” who are typically housed for more than four months.

The average daily population of the Cobb jail for fiscal year 2013 consisted of 85 percent men and 15 percent women.

Bartlett said the female population is rising from the typical 10 percent it has been for years.

In 2013, the Cobb jail population was 53 percent black, down from the 55 percent black population in 2012, Bartlett said, and 47 percent white.

Bartlett said gang issues have not been a big concern for prisons in the South, compared to the Northeast and West Coast, until recently.

“Now you have to be careful who you mix with whom,” Bartlett said. “There are predatory inmates that you can’t put with other inmates … And other inmates who are seen as likely to be victimized.”

Operating a jail

The operational budget of the jail rose by more than $1.1 million from $45.8 million in fiscal 2011 to $47 million in 2014.

The Cobb jail employs 510 people, including 80 unfilled positions, Bodiford said. Of those personnel, the Cobb jail has 300 sworn deputy officers and 179 civilian positions.

The Cobb jail is run by the Sheriff’s Office, so each officer completes 80 hours of instruction, beyond the mandated law enforcement training, to be a certified jailer.

Bartlett, who started as a Marietta beat officer in 1974 and has a degree in political science from the University of Georgia, said the Cobb jail has a high turnover rate for officers.

Bartlett said being in and out of cellblocks with 60 to 100 inmates is a rough job, especially when inmates are likely to spit, throw feces or punch an officer in the face.

“We have a certain number of inmates that are just crazy,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said there are more and more inmates with mental problems since state-run institutions have been shut down.

After a decade of adding on to the existing jail property, the facility is no longer overpopulated and will not need further expansion in the near future, Bartlett said

The plan over the next six months, Bartlett said, is to move inmates out of the older buildings so the aging sections of the compound can be cleaned and retrofitted with new technology.

Still, Bartlett said a possible increase in the inmate population is impossible to control or even foresee.

From harsher sentences by judges to a push by local law enforcement to tackle a certain type of crime, “anything in the process can change the equilibrium,” Bartlett said.

Jail expansion, new technology

Because of the fluctuation in the amount of inmates, the Cobb jail has seen many periods of growth.

More than 100 years ago, Bartlett said the jail was actually a work camp on what was then called County Farm Road. Inmates farmed, tended livestock, and were carted out for an entire week in a horse-drawn metal cage for work detail around the county, Bartlett said.

In 1987, the jail was built for $13.5 million on the only good piece of land in the flood plan on County Services Parkway, Bartlett said.

In 1997, the jail was expanded to add 1,241 medium-security beds at a cost of $39.2 million, Bartlett said.

More than $100 million from the 2005 SPLOST further expanded the Cobb jail with a five-story tower that added 1,152 beds, as well as a new intake and release area.

Part of the project’s funding also built a new visitors’ center that opened in March 2009, which allows for family, friends and attorneys to talk to an inmate through a video feed, instead of walking through the corridors of the jail.

The jail sees about 70,000 visitors a year, but the new center keeps residents from going through security.

Bartlett said the visitor’s center keeps children from seeing other inmates who might be obscene or expose themselves.

“One of the things we wanted was a very positive experience,” Bartlett said. “That is probably the best thing we have ever done.”

Cobb adult detention center

3,000 inmate capacity

In 2013:

* 27,470 people booked into the jail

* 1,977 average daily population

* 85 percent male inmates

* 15 percent female inmates

* 53 percent black inmates, down from the 55 percent black population in 2012

* 47 percent white inmates (includes Hispanic)

Operation costs

* $47 million for fiscal 2014, which started Oct. 1

* $46.7 million for 2013

* $46.1 million for 2012

* $45.8 million for 2011

Average cost of each inmate per day

* $65.10 expected for fiscal 2014, which started Oct. 1

* $58.55 in fiscal 2013

* $55.45 in fiscal 2012

* $53.58 in fiscal 2011

Source: Cobb Grand Jury Reports

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