By Dylan Goforth
Phoenix Staff Writer
During this summer’s primary election season, Muskogee County Sheriff Charles Pearson and his opponents all cited jail improvements as an area of concern.
Pearson easily swept through primaries and knocked out challenger Roger Lee last month, and in doing so, Pearson said his next target is the Muskogee County/City Detention Center.
During Pearson’s 12 years as sheriff, he’s helped oversee the creation of the E-911 Center, renovations to electronic jail security and an overhaul of the Muskogee County District Courthouse’s security systems and procedures.
“They told me I’d never get that E-911 Center agreed on, but there it is,” Pearson said. “But now we have to do something to this jail.”
Built in 1986, the Muskogee County jail is a 44,232-square-foot facility. It features four floors, but the bottom floor — the basement — and the top floor don’t hold prisoners. In between, two 17,367-square-foot floors house more than 300 inmates.
Some cell blocks there are cleaner than others. One block, used primarily to house federal inmates, has its own cleaning supplies.
Thomas Ivy, an inmate in that block, showed off his spotless cell. It was a small, two-bed room, but everything was clean, neat and orderly. Still, the room, like much of the rest of the jail, had a dilapidated appearance due to the almost 30 years of wear and tear.
Another block, used to house trusties, has a shower that leaks onto the floor where some inmates sleep. A makeshift concrete barrier has been laid down, but “it doesn’t work,” one inmate said.
“We’ve got to expand,” Pearson said. “We’ve got to go either up, or out.”
The jail was designed to allow upward expansion, Pearson said. However, that type of construction is costly.
“When they built this place, they knew it would need to be larger,” Pearson said. “They anticipated that it would need to be expanded.”
Pearson said it would cost an extra $2 million to $3 million to add to the top of the existing jail.
“It just costs more to work high up like that,” he said.
Additional structures could be built around the facility, but Pearson isn’t a huge fan of that approach.
“We’d like to conserve space, and keep downtown the way it is, and that means going up.”
But there are different options being bandied about.
Pearson estimated a new jail would cost upwards of $9 million. Information from Reed Construction Data, a business information provider for the country’s construction industry, matches up with Pearson’s estimate: A 40,000-square-foot jail would cost $9,361,915.
But a new jail wouldn’t solve all the issues facing the jail’s administrators.
The jail can get crowded, Pearson said, and tight quarters combined with jail personalities can be a volatile mix.
“Right now we’re at 320 inmates, but I’ve had almost 400 in there,” Pearson said. “It’s not ideal. With the type of crime we have and the types of gangs, if we get too many people in there at one time, we have too many fights.
“They’re infrequent, but they do happen.”
When Pearson was elected in 2000, he said the jail could hold 218 beds. Now, it has 282 beds. Modifications allow the number of inmates to fly past 282, into the upper 300s.
Thursday, rolls showed the jail had 313 inmates.
Building a new jail would make everything nice and shiny, which aesthetically would be an upgrade over the current facility’s interior. But 40,000 square feet is 40,000 square feet, whether it’s new or old.
“We need about 250 more beds,” Pearson said. “Eventually, we’re going to get to a breaking point where it’s an absolute necessity.”
Other counties similar in size to Muskogee County don’t face the same space issues Pearson does.
Payne County has a population of 77,988, yet their jail supervisor said they average 165 inmates in a 404-person jail. Wagoner County has 74,098 residents, and maxes out at 152 inmates.
According to census data, 71,003 people live in Muskogee County.
Pearson would like to be able to house 500 prisoners, and currently holds more than 300 every day.
Not every inmate is housed on Muskogee County warrants. Pearson said the jail accepts inmates from other facilities with no room on a dollar-per-day basis. Every agreement is different, but an inmate — including juveniles — can bring in about $40 per day, per inmate.
Pearson said in the jail’s early days, that was a big moneymaker, allowing the sheriff’s office to avoid needing public funding. Almost 30 years after the jail’s inception, it just helps break even.
One of Pearson’s favorite ideas for expansion is one he said “makes the most sense, but might be the least popular.”
The Muskogee Police Department is connected to the jail. Why not move the police department to a new building, and renovate the building to be a part of the current jail facility, Pearson asked.
“I’d like to build them a new City Hall and police station and make it a Justice Center,” Pearson said. “The new building could be a one stop shop, you could have a representative from every department there to handle it. It would be a central location where county and city fines could be paid.”
Pearson knows he’s got work to do to convince city leaders to cede the police building over.
“But the fact is, most east coast communities have moved to justice centers because they just make so much sense,” Pearson said. “Those communities have been around longer than we have, and they’ve modernized more than us.”
Finances also present a problem. No matter which option everyone decides on, it will cost a substantial amount, and Pearson said he would like to find a way to keep county citizens from having to foot the bill.
“We’ve got a lot of property out there that the county owns that is prime real estate that we could sell. That would be more valuable to sell than to build a jail on,” Pearson said. “The county commissioners are looking at it now. This isn’t a problem that just came out of nowhere, we’ve known this day was coming for a while.”
Reach Dylan Goforth at (918) 684-2903 or email@example.com.