Deadline Looms To Reduce Harrison County Jail Overcrowding

The pressure is to get the head count down at the Harrison County Jail, but jail officials say making a deadline isn't their first priority. Public safety is. Prison rights attorneys gave the jail until May 1st to fix severe overcrowding or face the Department of Justice.

As of one o'clock Wednesday, Warden Don Cabana said there were 913 inmates in a jail built to hold 760. The good news, he says, is that number is down from 1,018 just a month ago.

The Harrison County Jail has turned to the state Department of Corrections for help easing its overcrowding problem.

Dr. Cabana said, "We've got 19 state prisoners out this morning. That's on top of a big load of about 30 last week and we've been making weekly runs up there."

The warden says the jail is doing what it can to make sure the Justice Department will be satisfied come May 1st. But, he says, there are limits.

"The first thing and the most important thing here is public safety," said Dr. Cabana. "Nobody is going to get out of here to walk the streets that shouldn't be. We'll do what we have to do, and if we don't get down to the 760 by May 1st, I think we can certainly demonstrate to any reasonable individual that we've made a good faith effort to do everything we could. Before this old warden would want to see anybody let loose on the public that doesn't need to be out there, I'd just as soon stack them to the ceiling."

District Attorney Cono Caranna says the slow moving justice system contributes to jail crowding.

"Someone can be in jail for six months before we ever see a file," he said.

Harrison County now has a full time public defender. Caranna says court officials recently met to make sure the county is using that to its advantage.

He said, "This week we'll have about 20 pleas that were not scheduled until they [public defender staff members] went out, brought the information from the inmates to us."

Cabana says his office checks with law enforcement to be sure to get all the information in an offender's file. Another 60 cases should be reviewed for possible pleas next week.

"I think the full time public defenders office is going to make a difference," said Dr. Cabana. "It's not going to be immediate, but I think having a full time staff will help us deal with folks that don't need to be in here as long as they've been sitting here."

The quick solution is getting the jail the population down by May first. Warden Cabana says the tougher job will be keeping it down.

Both Warden Don Cabana and District Attorney Cono Caranna say they've been working with local judges. One approach is to allow some people accused of misdemeanors out of jail while awaiting trial using various types of monitoring systems.