Inmate medical care costs $1M a year

Inmate medical costs in Hancock County have risen nearly 600 percent in the past three years, and county supervisors said this week they may ask the cities of Bay St. Louis and Waveland to start paying their shares.

Currently, the cities are enjoying a free ride when it comes to inmate medical costs and the housing of city inmates at the Pearl River County Jail.

The cities pay nothing once an inmate is dropped off at the Longfellow Avenue Booking Facility.

Hancock County Administrator Princy Harrison said Friday that medical costs have progressively increased over the past four years.

In the 2007 fiscal year, the total medical cost for inmates was $288,174; in 2008 it jumped to $672,418; in 2009, the costs were $1,128,035; and the 2010 costs are projected to eclipse the $1 million mark once again, Harrison said.

Bay St. Louis and Waveland contribute about half of the inmates sent to the Pearl River County jail, records show.

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the county stopped the practice of charging the cities $15 per-day per-inmate to house their inmates.

That fee was used to offset feeding and clothing the inmates and expenses at the jail, officials said.

Sheriff’s Administrator Ronnie Cuevas said Thursday that although the county stopped charging to house the inmates, he believes the cities were still responsible for any medical costs the inmate incurs.

Inmates arrested by the city are classified as “city inmates” until they are indicted, when they become “county inmates,” Cuevas said.

Sometimes it can be more than a year before an inmate is indicted.

Since Hurricane Katrina, the housing costs have not been much of an issue since FEMA has paid a percentage of the costs to house local inmates in Pearl River County.

However, all of the medical costs have been paid by the county.

“Basically, we are paying all of the medical costs,” Board President Rocky Pullman said Friday. “It’s killing the sheriff’s budget.”

Pullman said the board is planning to sit down with both Waveland and Bay St. Louis and discuss the issue.

Bay St. Louis Mayor Les Fillingame said Friday he has never been approached by the county about the issue.

“I’m not sure if we are responsible for it, but we will be glad to discuss it with them,” Fillingame said. “So far, there has been no dialogue.”

The idea of charging municipalities is not foreign and several counties in South Mississippi charge their cities for housing prisoners.

Harrison County Sheriff Melvin Brisolara said Thursday that his department charges cities $25 per-day-per-inmate.

“The costs are just getting so high, we cannot afford it,” Brisolara said.

Pullman said the sheriff’s department has been doing a good job of keeping inmate numbers down, but some people have to be transported to Pearl River.

Offenders are allowed to post bond at the Longfellow Avenue facility and some misdemeanor offenders are held a day or two until they can be seen by municipal or justice court judges, officials said.

“We are trying to only take the worst offenders to jail,” Pullman said.

Waveland Police Chief Jimmy Varnell said Friday he is encouraging his officers to allow offenders to post bond at the police station.

“We don’t want to bring anyone to the county unless we have to,” Varnell said.

Despite the efforts to keep numbers down, the inmate population from Hancock County is at the same level as it was prior to Katrina.

A major reason for that and the rise in medical costs is the large number of arrests for methamphetimine, officials said.

Not only are the arrests felonies, the drug often has destructive consequences on its users, officials said.

Pullman said he would like to continue helping the cities, but the costs are getting so high, the county cannot afford it anymore.

“This cannot keep going,” Pullman said. “We cannot give pay raises to our employees, but we are paying the city’s bills. The cities have been able to give pay raises in the past few years and we have not. That is not fair.”

BY: Dwayne Bremer

The Sea Coast Echo

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