Prison guards tell Decatur County Commissioners, ‘don’t shut us down’

A large group of Decatur County Correctional Institute guards showed up to county commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday night, to question why they were the target of scrutiny following an agreement between the county government and the City of Bainbridge.

According to county officials, DCCI had an annual operating loss of approximately $2.1 million last year (revenue – expenses). That figure alarmed county commissioners after it was brought to their attention by lawyers representing the City of Bainbridge in the recently-held Service Delivery Agreement mediation.

That updated service delivery agreement updates which services each of Decatur County’s local governments is to provide citizens, and how those services will be funded. As it stands, Decatur County’s budget could substantially increase, as the county is now responsible for paying for recreation, helping Memorial Hospital pay for treating patients who can’t pay themselves, and maintain county roads that run through Bainbridge city limits.

County commissioners are faced with either having to raise additional revenue through higher property taxes or making cuts to their existing budget.

Unfortunately, a rumor started that Decatur County commissioners–concerned about the $2.1 million budget shortfall at the prison–could be considering shutting it down altogether.

While some county officials contacted Warden Elijah McCoy to discuss budget issues, DCCI employees learned of commissioners’ focus on the prison’s budget by word-of-mouth.

Lt. Ronald McMillan of DCCI spoke on behalf of a couple of dozen guards who showed up at Tuesday night’s meeting. McMillan said DCCI employees are worried they might be out of a job soon, or would otherwise have their work environment negatively impacted by budget cuts. McMillan also criticized why county officials had not done more to inform them of what was being talked about regarding the prison.

Decatur County Administrator Gary Breedlove held a short-notice informational session with the DCCI guards and other county employees prior to commissioners’ regular meeting. Commissioner Butch Mosely said Breedlove had unnecessarily stirred up DCCI employees’ emotions by laying out tough county financial numbers during that meeting.

There was another rumor that a county commissioner had proposed cross-training DCCI employees to do some of the work that county inmates currently do. Commissioner Pete Stephens acknowledged that a statement he had made was the source of the rumor, but said his comments had been misinterpreted. Stephens said he was concerned about the DCCI employees’ welfare; if by some event the decision was made to shut down the prison, he wondered what could be done to keep as many guards employed with the county as possible, perhaps by having them do other jobs within the county government.

County commissioners were originally to have considered a meeting agenda item labeled, “County Prison Audit.” Partly in response to the feedback DCCI employees had given to county officials just before the regular meeting, Commissioner Mosely made a successful motion for the county to look into hiring an outside accountant to audit all county departments’ budgets and identify potential savings or address any budget leaks.

Warden Elijah McCoy said he welcomed the audit of his budget and other county departments, but said he personally thought it might be an unnecessary expense. Over the past week, Warden McCoy sent out a letter to all of the customers who use DCCI inmate labor. Some of those customers are located within Bainbridge and Decatur County and a few are not, such as Cairo, Grady and Seminole counties.

According to the warden, the current annual rate a customer has to pay to use county inmates is $55,000–that is DCCI’s cost to employ a person to guard the inmates on work details so they don’t escape. A couple of customers pay the old rate of $46,000 per year, until their contract comes up for renewal.

The City of Bainbridge uses 24 inmates; two crews of 12 inmates. Other agencies use less inmates, based on their need.

McCoy asked all of DCCI’s customers to estimate how much they would have to pay an hourly worker to perform the tasks that county inmates provide for them. All but a few of the customers responded, and McCoy multiplied the estimated hourly wage for each “job” times 40 hours a week. He said he didn’t include any kind of benefits that normally would have to be budgeted for private workers.

Even without the City of Bainbridge responding with their estimates, Warden McCoy estimated that county inmate labor has a monetary value of at least $2.3 million. He said those figures are why he doesn’t believe the prison should be shut down. McCoy said he called 10 of Georgia’s 22 county-run prisons and found that all of them operate losses of at least in the hundreds of thousands. The challenge is to find a way to pay for the service that county inmates provide, and perform the service of housing the inmates safely, in another way besides cutting the prison’s budget entirely, McCoy said.

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