After four years of being shut down, the Bessemer Jail resumed operations today. Jefferson County Sheriff Mike Hale made the decision to close the jail in 2009 after the county commission cut his budget by $10 million.
When the jail closed in 2009, there was room for 244 inmates. Today, thanks to a multi-million dollar expansion, a third floor was added, creating space for more than 400 inmates. Sheriff Hale says this provides immediate relief from what was becoming a dangerous overcrowding issue at the Birmingham jail.
With armed deputies keeping a watchful eye, some 30 inmates walked into the booking area of the Jefferson County Bessemer jail. The first to occupy this facility in four years. Sheriff Hale says reopening the jail will correct the overcrowding problem in Birmingham, and subsequently keep legal problems at bay.
"We're under a federal lawsuit right now. This should make that lawsuit go away, because we've been crowded in the Birmingham jail by up to over 350 inmates sleeping on the floor," said Hale.
With the overcrowding, Hale had concerns for the safety of his staff. He says this new space will diminish those concerns.
"You can imagine for the deputy sheriffs and personnel working in the Birmingham jail, it's been an explosive that we by the grace of god have just survived," he said.
Several months ago, commissioners voted unanimously to appropriate funds to reopen the jail. The reopening follows Jefferson county emerging from bankruptcy earlier this month.
"We were able to renegotiate the lease for all of the Bessemer facilities which were totaling 8.3 per year. We were able to negotiate that down to an average of 4.7 million dollars a year," said Commissioner Jimmie Stephens.
The money saved in the lease freed up enough funds to help reopen the jail. Commissioner Sandra Little Brown says the decision to appropriate the funds was an easy one to make, considering the conditions she saw at the Birmingham jail.
"I saw mats on the floor in the day room. We have a nice jail downtown and it's just dumbfounding to think that we have the beautiful jail here, remodeled and we couldn't put inmates in here," said Brown.
Sheriff hale says, although the jail can hold some 400 inmates, he wants to keep the numbers around 200 for now.