WINDER - When the county's work release center opened a year ago last month, Director Jimmy Terrell expected a few bugs before the building filled up and residents reached maximum capacity.
And the program was going well. Its population was increasing, to 42 over the summer, nearly half the center's 96 beds. Some graduated, some were dismissed. But their replacements never came.
By October, 17 beds were filled. In November and December, it was down to 13 residents. And in January, there were 12.
By one day in late February, only eight people were participating in the program, which allows people who would otherwise be jailed to work during the day and spend the night in the center.
"A big disappointment has been a lack of people to fill the bed spaces," Terrell said. "We all thought we'd be able to fill the beds with very little effort."
The county's jail is severely overcrowded, with 56 inmates being housed at other jails last week according to Mike Katsegaines, Barrow County Detention Center division commander. The Department of Community Affairs' monthly jail report indicates that Barrow had 128 more inmates in February than it had room for, and Chief Deputy Murray Kogod said as many as 80 inmates have been shipped out in recent months.
But Kogod said the work release center is not a detention center, so inmates cannot be transferred from the jail to work release without a court order.
"We can't take somebody out of our custody and give them to work release," he said. "We have to remain in control of those individuals."
Not all county inmates are eligible to spend time in the work release facility, which is formally known as the T. Penn McWhorter Work Release Center, and Kogod said he had no idea how many inmates might be eligible.
Terrell did not know how many people in the county jail might be eligible for work release, but said there are certainly some inmates who could participate.
To be in the program, inmates must be clean of drugs and alcohol and cannot have a criminal record or a history of violence in the preceding five years.
That leaves, for the most part, inmates who are delinquent in child support payments. According to the center's annual report, $66,164 was collected from inmates in child support payments during their time in the program, while residents earned more than $238,000 in wages and paid $125,294.96 in fees.
Kogod said people eligible for work release, which is a volunteer program, have typically had their sentences suspended by the courts while his office checks to make sure they are eligible for the program. The Sheriff's Office has nothing else to do with the work release facility, he said, though if an inmate were to ask about work release, Kogod said he would give him the correct information.
Terrell said the Sheriff's Office has questioned the legality of the program, despite the fact that state law says the sheriff, work-release director or administrator can enter into an agreement to accept local inmates into the program. Kogod and Sheriff Joe Robinson were also on the planning committee for the center, Terrell said. He said he did not know at what point there was a breakdown in understanding about the program's role.
"I would contend that we are a legal facility," he said. "All of us are concerned that we have this building here, and bed space, and there's jail overcrowding. We're a legitimate program."
Kogod said he only worked with the program in its early stages, and that it was under the county's purview.
"That is a county project," he said. "Unless a sentence is suspended, we cannot put an inmate in that facility. It's a volunteer program, not a detention facility."
The work release center has been accepted into the community, Terrell said, and a number of employers in the area are willing to give jobs for local inmates. Several of its 42 graduates have returned to thank Terrell for helping them turn their lives around, he said.
In the first 10 months, 112 people participated in the program and 52 were rejected. Rules violations meant that 58 were dismissed before they completed their time and were returned to jail. Because so many extra beds are available, the spaces have been offered to people jailed in other counties.
"When we started, I expected to be at 80, 90 percent capacity at this point," Terrell said. "I think we still have issues that we need to sit down and work out with all parties involved. ... No doubt, we're concerned about the numbers right now. We think the answer's here in the county, it's a matter of getting it back to the table."
Kogod declined to comment on what improvements he thought could be made to the facility, but said he would be more than happy to talk to Terrell or others about how he feels the center could be more effective, if asked.
Terrell said the program has been a success, overall, in its first year. He hopes that it can continue to improve.
"Everyone around us is either overcrowded or building a jail," he said. "The numbers are there."