Pittsburg County residents aren’t the only ones who will be watching when election results come in for a proposed new county sales tax on Oct. 11.

The state’s chief jail inspector will be watching, too.

Ben Garrison is the supervisor of jail inspections for the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

He traveled to Pittsburg County several times last spring to meet with county commissioners and urged them to do something about the overcrowded conditions at the Pittsburg County Jail.

Although the jail is designed for 65 inmates, as many as 100 have been jammed into it at times.

Garrison said that so far, nothing has been done to alleviate the problem — other than to put the measure on a sales tax issue.

“There are still deficiencies,” said Garrison. Chronic jail overcrowding and staff shortages top the list.

Pittsburg County Sheriff Jerome “Snookie” Amaranto said Tuesday afternoon that there were exactly 65 inmates in the jail. He said that could change at anytime, though, with a sudden influx of prisoners.

He was right. This morning, there were 76 inmates jammed into the jail following a number of new bookings.

“People need to realize that every town in Pittsburg County uses our jail,” Amaranto said. “They don’t use their jail; they use ours.”

Funds for expanding and renovating the jail are included in the three-quarter cent county sales tax issue which will be on the ballot on Oct. 11 Money from the county sales tax would also be used to renovate the Pittsburg County Courthouse and purchase an annex for the building.

Revenue from the tax would also be used to acquire a Pittsburg County Animal Shelter.

If the proposal passes, a half-cent would go for all construction or expansion for the facilities. Three-sixteenths of a cent would go to fund jail operations and a sixteenth of a cent would go to fund animal shelter operations.

The half-cent part of the tax will expire when the bonds are paid. That’s estimated to be in from 15 to 19 years, depending on how much sales tax are collected, said Mark Emmons, a member of the Pittsburg County Progress Committee. The other quarter cent, for operations for the jail and animal shelter, would remain in effect unless repealed by voters.

Plans call for the jail to hold an additional 112 inmates after the expansion and renovations are completed. The measure includes funds for a video arraignment area.

Included in the plans for the jail addition portion of the bond issue is:

• A 20,895 square-foot addition for detention and booking at a cost of $4,701,375.

• A 1,600 square foot kitchen expansion at a cost of $256,000.

• A 4,476 square-foot administrative area, to be funded at $559,500.

• Kitchen equipment at a cost of $175,000.

• Parking and site improvements for $250,000.

Plans for the existing jail renovation are $717,000 for the first floor and $50,000 for the basement.

Also included is $150,000 for furniture and equipment; $20,000 for printing, testing and permitting and $510,835 for architectural and engineering fees. Five percent, or $335,444, is included for contingency costs.

The three projects in the bond issue total $15,914,189.

A public forum to address issues surrounding the proposed sales tax is set for 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Kiamichi Technology Center.

A panel consisting of members of the Progress Committee will be on hand. Those supporting the measure intend to make a brief presentation and then take questions from the audience.

The public is welcome to attend the event.

Dr. James Dunagin, a member of the Pittsburg County Progress Committee, noted that any fines or court judgments assessed against the county could end up costing property owners in the county, since the county is funded to a large degree by ad valorem taxes.

Dunagin said he’s been impressed by the dedication of jailers. “But they are overwhelmed trying to work in a small and outdated facility” built more than 30 years ago,” he said.

“I would hate to think an innocent person awaiting trail would be exposed to mental and physical abuse from other prisoners, but given the current facility, there is certainly the potential for this.”

Meanwhile, fines have already been assessed against Pittsburg County commissioners because of problems at the jail.

“They already owe $29,000,” Garrison said, noting that the fine assessed through his office is currently on appeal.”

Garrison said if something is not done soon, he will take action to try and get the jail closed. Garrison can’t close the Pittsburg County Jail by himself — but he can ask state Health Commissioner Dr. Mike Crutcher and Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson to close it if Pittsburg County voters don’t pass the sales tax proposals on Tuesday.

“The bottom line is if they don’t pass it. I’m going to ask my commissioner of health to ask the attorney general’s office to close the facility,” Garrison said.

“Once we do that, it’s up to the attorney general,” he said.

Coming Thursday: A look at the proposed animal shelter.

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