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The price of punishment
A breakdown of the costs of housing a prisoner in Newton County
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A roof over your head, three square meals a day and access not only to basic necessities, but also to quality healthcare and a few extras such as television, all for just $45 a day. In the current economy it may sound like paradise to some, until they learn that is the price of a prisoner in Newton County.

Though the number fluctuates daily, and according to Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown, it generally goes up instead of down, as of Wednesday there were 550 people calling the Newton County Detention Center their home. That’s more than $24,000 a day just to care for the prisoners, and that is assuming that none of them have health issues that require constant medication.

According to Brown there are currently no inmates that have severe illnesses but there are some that have basic ailments such as high blood pressure and diabetes, which causes the price to increase as the medical staff in the jail has to provide them with their medication per law. And that medication and care can be something as minor as Tylenol for a headache or as major as an EKG or a trip to the hospital for a diagnosis. Once at the hospital that prisoner is then under the care of a doctor and the jail staff must follow their direction.

Roughly 98 percent of the NCSO budget goes to inmates – either directly or indirectly. Of the budget, approximately 50 percent is personnel, 20 percent is medical, 20 percent is general supplies and about 10 percent is capital outlay. But the jail requires a little out of each of those percentages, dipping into general supplies for food and utilities, into personnel for guards and into capital outlay for operational costs.

If a prisoner gets sick, they have to be treated, as Newton County residents saw with the arrest of Lanny Barnes in 2006. While in jail, Barnes became extremely ill and was eventually diagnosed with leukemia. He was sent to Emory University Hospital for treatment and ended up using a third of the NCSO medical care budget for the 17 months he was in custody. In dollar amount, Newton County spent approximately $470,000 on the treatment of a convicted murderer.

"We are required by federal and state law to care for prisoners," explained Brown. "We are the keeper of the jail, and in doing so we have to treat every individual in jail as humanely as possible. Failure to do so would result in civil and criminal litigation and the federal government dictating how we operate the facility."

Brown was also quick to point out that it would end up costing taxpayers even more in lawsuit money if they were to ignore the care of prisoners. "We try so hard to do things mandated, to do them daily and to do a good job, but still we are often sued," he said.

The jail can house up to 680 prisoners and has, in the past, been home to individuals from surrounding counties due to overcrowding in those jails, or due to safety issues. When Newton County does house other prisoners, their base counties pay for their incarceration, much like paying rent to a landlord.

Newton County has an agreement with surrounding counties such as Walton, Butts, Rockdale and Henry, that if we need to house a prisoner in their jails we can do so. According to Brown a reason to do this would be for safety. For example, if a Newton County deputy was arrested and jailed, for his or her protection they would be sent to an adjoining county and we would pay to house them there.

At the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, their projected cost to service their inmate population in Fiscal Year 2009 was over $60,000 and the projected healthcare (direct) was more than $72,000 for the prison’s inmates.

Many citizens are unhappy with the money spent on people accused, and some convicted, of crimes. But as Brown points out, it is not up the NCSO - they are required to provide.

In a new program, the NCSO has decided to give the prisoners a bit more responsibility, both to help deputies and to instill pride in the inmates themselves. In the jail are several pods, and these are where inmates are housed, generally two to a cell. The pod is a large part of their world while in jail. It contains showers, their recreational area and tables where they eat their meals, sit and watch television, read and play games with one another.

Pods usually hold around 60 prisoners at a time – though they can hold more – and guards name two men living in the pods as a "House Man." One of the House Men is white and one black. These are generally older men who can help to keep running smoothly between inmates. If there is a problem, the House Man can speak with the guard about it in an effort to diffuse the situation; he can also make sure that prisoners keep up with "house work" and personal hygiene, if the need should arise.

Since then they have seen a decrease in fighting and an increase in morale among the prisoners, which helps everyone in the jail. Prisoners are also called on to keep things neat and tidy at the NCSO. They wash patrol cars, do the yard work, clean the jail and cook the meals.

Brown admits, however, that no matter how well a prisoner does while incarcerated, the chance that he or she will be back is very high.

"It’s a revolving door," he said. Prisoners may act like model citizens when there are locked up but revert to an entirely different person once out. But no matter how many times the staff may see an individual inmate, they are still required to do certain things for that person, per the law.

"Every individual in here is someone’s child," said Brown. "Someone’s father, mother, sister, brother – and they should be treated with respect. To a degree. Not to do so would place an individual officer above the law and no man is above the law."