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Q&A with Mark Luttrell

Shelby County Sheriff

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At a press conference earlier this month about a successful fugitive operation, Memphis police director Larry Godwin noted how happy he was to see a couple hundred more criminals behind bars.

"The more folks we can put in the sheriff's jail, the better I feel," said Godwin. Laughing, Shelby County sheriff Mark Luttrell remarked, "We always have room for one more."

But Luttrell announced last week that that may not always be the case. He says the jail at 201 Poplar doesn't allow enough inmates per guard, making it costly to operate. Also, the 2,500 inmates currently housed at the jail -- it was built in 1981 to accommodate 1,400 inmates -- are putting a strain on the building's plumbing and electrical systems.

Though modifications have been made to hold the extra inmates, Luttrell believes the facility could only hold a few hundred more people before drastic costly modifications would be required. Instead, he's asking the county to build a new jail that would hold 3,500 inmates. -- By Bianca Phillips

Flyer: Is 26 years a full life sentence for a jail?

Luttrell: In the good old days, they'd build jails to last a hundred years. But with so many changes in approaches to corrections, 25 to 30 years is about the life span of a facility.

We could continue with the jail that we've got for probably another few years, but we're going to have to spend a lot more money on it. In addition to the 2,500 inmates housed at the facility, we're housing an additional 200 out at the Corrections Center.

How would a new jail affect staffing?

Our jail has very small living units. They're 40-bed pods, and we have to have one officer for every 40-bed pod. We could very easily set up an arrangement with one staff member for about 60 to 80 inmates in a pod in a new facility.

We roughly have 1,100 staff for about 3,000 inmates now. We should be able to run a facility of 3,000-plus inmates with 800 staff if it's constructed appropriately. We think that we can save about $20 million a year with a new facility.

How many more inmates can the jail house?

We should never gauge our law enforcement initiatives based on the jail population. If they're bad enough to go out there and arrest, we'll find space for them.

What would a new jail cost?

If we could build a facility for $200 million, which is a ballpark figure, and save $20 million a year, we could pay for that facility in 10 years.

Earlier this year, you rejected the idea of privatizing the jail. should we revisit that?

I'm not convinced that privatization will save us that much money without impacting operational efficiency. Privatization of jails is a relatively new field. When you think of privatization, it's used mostly in managing prisons, not so much in managing jails. If we were privatized, we'd be the largest privatized jail in America, and I'm not ready to be the pilot project for jail privatization.

Where could the new jail be located?

We need about 75 acres to build a campus-style facility. If we build a high-rise, like we have at 201, we won't need a lot of acreage. Then we'll look at available property the county already owns.

One thing we have to take into consideration when we talk about building a facility away from downtown is the logistics of moving inmates from the facility to the courts downtown.

What would happen to 201?

That's yet to be determined. There are a lot of old jails and prisons sitting around because they're expensive to build and expensive to tear down. If we build a remote facility, we would probably end up using a couple of floors in 201 to house inmates we'd have to bring to the court. Also, I'd assume our receiving/discharge area would remain downtown, so we could probably use a couple of floors.

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