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Winder closes its aging jail

WINDER - Anyone arrested by the Winder police can look on the bright side - city prisoners are now housed in the new, state-of-the-art Oconee County jail.

Winder councilmen voted Aug. 7 to close the city's 21-year-old jail. Its bars slammed shut the next day. City Manager Bob Beck figures the agreement with Oconee County will save Winder about $114,400 per year.

In 2006, Winder's jail logged 1,800 jail days, Beck said. One jail day equals one prisoner staying one day.

The jail area will be converted into office space for police, Lt. Todd Druse said.

When the 816-square-foot jail was constructed in 1986, designers made no provisions for housing women nor for preparing meals. Women are housed either in the jail's former two-bed, 64-square-foot drunk tank or transported to Walton County. A hand crank works a system of levers and pulleys to close each cell's barred doors. Sometimes the crank got stuck open or closed.

Winder's jail was designed to comfortably hold about a dozen men, although it has housed up to 26 at one time, Druse said.

"We had a parole violator in here who served 210 days," Druse said.

Three times each day, a Winder police officer drove to the Barrow County Sheriff's Office to pick up meals for prisoners. Sick or injured inmates were loaded into a patrol car and were transported by an officer to the hospital. Because no funds were budgeted for jail staff, it fell upon whoever was working to oversee inmates.

Prisoners cleaned the jail.

"It would be a substantial investment to bring it up to modern standards," said City Manager Bob Beck.

As the jail grew older, liability issues became more of a concern.

"Not having a jail reduces our liability insurance," said Lt. Dennis Dorsey.

It should reduce costs, too.

Beck figures the city would have to hire seven or eight more employees, at a cost of $300,000 to $400,000 per year, to staff the jail around the clock. The city budgeted $264,400 for jail and inmate upkeep in 2007, Leslie Ginn, Winder's finance director, said.

Located about a 20-minute drive from Winder, Oconee County offered a deal hard to refuse. Only 40 or 50 Oconee County prisoners occupy the new $10 million, 137-bed jail that opened this year, Sheriff Scott Berry said. With plenty of room to spare, Winder can house inmates in the Oconee County jail for only $40 per day per prisoner, which includes non-emergency medical care.

Beck calculates paying Oconee County up to $150,000 per year to house Winder's prisoners.

Jackson County and the city of Watkinsville also farm their prisoners out to the Oconee County jail, Berry said.

Winder's prisoners will make use of glass pods, as opposed to barred cells, a recreation area partially open to the outdoors, a kitchen, a doctor and nurse on staff and state-of-the-art security electronics and surveillance equipment, Berry said.

"The prisoners haven't complained much, and the officers got a real morale boost," Beck said.