Henry sheriff seeks $20 million to combat jail overcrowding, staffing issues

Henry Sheriff Reginald Scandrett on Tuesday requested up to $20 million to address jail overcrowding and staffing issues in metro Atlanta’s second-fasting growing county.

The response from county leaders? Be patient.

Scandrett told the Henry County Commission that the jail routinely houses close to 100 more detainees than its 892-bed capacity allows, and that the overcrowding has put pressure on food and medical costs, mental health services and staffing.

“We contracted, particularly with respect to food and medical services ... for 750 inmates,” Scandrett said. “Immediately we are getting invoices for additional payments.”

But Henry County Financial Services Director David Smith said the sheriff’s office has not spent the funding it has already received, and that before it can request money for more jobs it must fill the 24 currently open positions. Jail officials said the office needs about 46 additional employees.

“We need to be minimizing costs at this time,” Smith said, arguing that the nation could be headed for a recession. “We need to focus on what are essential expenses.”

Scandrett’s request comes as Henry has grown from a rural community of about 36,200 in 1980 to around 241,000 residents in 2020, according to the U.S. Census.

The jail, which was built in 1991 and has been expanded at least two times, is expected to house almost 1,300 inmates by the end of 2024, according to sheriff’s office estimates.

A big driver of the overcrowding is a backlog in the judicial system, Scandrett said. About 49% of detainees in the Henry jail are waiting to be tried in Superior Court alone.

The sheriff’s request includes at least $10 million for an additional building to house detainees and about $9 million to address immediate needs, such as higher food costs, medicine and staff.

Commissioner Dee Clemmons said the focus should be on addressing the court backlog. Instead of building more jail space, she and other Commissioners suggested hiring additional temporary judges to help the judiciary catch up on cases.

“Those conversations are taking place every single week,” Scandrett said.

Increasing the jail’s population also has been the growth in incarcerations of people with mental health issues, Scandrett said. About 25% of detainees have mental or substance abuse issues, leading to higher costs for medicine and salaries for doctors.

Commissioner Dee Anglyn said while that he understands that the state has vacated its role on mental health, he’s not sure adding more jail space solves that problem. But Scandrett said it’s impossible to separate those with mental difficulties from the general population when space is limited.

Smith said the county plans to give the jail an additional $1.9 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to address some of its medical funding needs.

He added that the county also hopes to create a facilities authority next year to address the need for more space across Henry government, including the jail’s need for an additional building.

“That is good news to hear,” Scandrett said. “That knowledge helps us from a strategic perspective.”