After Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway told a local news station about ongoing negotiations with Birmingham-area municipalities to open a regional jail, Jefferson County Commission president Jimmie Stephens said that the Commission, not the sheriff, must seal the deal.

Pettway told WBRC on Saturday that he’s received a positive response from Birmingham-area law enforcement about the regional jail and intends to work with the state to stop inmates from becoming repeat offenders. He said cities must sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to begin forging a partnership with his department on the jail endeavor. 

In response, Stephens told 1819 News that Pettway only had the authority to operate the jail. If he wants a regional jail constructed, funded and authorized, it must gain the approval of the Commission first.

“[Pettway] can make the MOU, but the facility, its location and funding is a function of the commission,” he said. “It is counterproductive to negotiate without all parties at the table. [The regional jail] must generate financial savings and be in a logistically favorable location to be feasible. There is much work to be done and a better understanding of its purpose before the county signs off to construct.”

Several cities in the Birmingham area struggle to pay for the jails in their jurisdictions. 

Birmingham, for instance, was previously negotiating with the county to move inmates out of the city jail and into a Jefferson County jail also located in Birmingham, citing the facility’s poor condition as a reason a move is necessary.  

Jefferson County already houses the city’s inmates with felonies, leaving only those charged with misdemeanors in the city jail. 

But, in September, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin accused the county of discriminating against Birmingham after he offered the county a rate of $65 per inmate, and Stephens countered with $110.

Stephens then told 1819 News that $110 was what the county needed to cover the cost of the new inmates at a jail that was already near capacity. 

Stephens said Pettway, a Democrat who won reelection last year, may have agreed with Woodfin, also a Democrat, to house inmates from the Birmingham jail. However, Pettway would not be able to do that without permission from the County Commission.

According to Stephens, the county has been considering constructing one to three regional prison facilities. 

“What we had done is we met with the Sheriff and the county manager, and what we had hoped to do is to reinitiate a metro area jail that would be a facility, perhaps constructed on a brownfield, where we would get a tax credit for it, and it would not be one of these $550 square-foot jails,” Stephens explained. “It would be about a $200 to $220 per square-foot jail.”

A brownfield is an abandoned industrial property that may contain contaminants. The federal government provides tax credits to entities that clean up and redevelop brownfields for other uses. Stephens said there are a handful of brownfields in the western portion of the Birmingham area, none located around any major neighborhoods. 

“It’d be beneficial,” Stephens said. “It satisfies two or three needs at one time.”

Stephens also suggested the county is looking into modular jails and potentially constructing more than one facility. 

But, first, Stephens said the county wants to see the results of a report from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA). 

“It would kind of [engage] the amount of interest from the municipalities, and what we said our decision was going to be predicated on the participation of municipalities, and I’m sure that theirs are going to be whether there’s any cost savings,” Stephens explained. “... [Pettway] still hasn’t determined that his responsibility is for operating the jail and ours is for building and instructing, finding the facility, the space, and actually making sure that all of the needs are met.”

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