Some vacant positions are going unfilled. Food bills, water bills and sewer bills are down. And there aren’t enough inmates available to fill a work crew.
That’s according to David Dionne, superintendent of Valley Street jail, which is growing empty. So empty, in fact, that Dionne is doing something unusual in the realm of government — he’s asking for a budget reduction.
Dionne appeared before Hillsborough County commissioners on Tuesday and had them cut funding for four corrections officers and five other staff from his proposed 2020 budget, saving $374,000.
“With this new bail reform (law), everyone is getting out,” said Dionne, who was an advocate of bail reform when it was passed into law last year. “And everyone who’s sentenced is going to a program somewhere.”
Located in Manchester, the Valley Street jail holds both people waiting for trial and those sentenced to a year or less behind bars.
It’s big enough to hold 700 inmates, and just a few years ago its census would approach 500.
But on Tuesday, 230 people were incarcerated there, Dionne said.
His proposed budget, which will go into effect July 1, is based on an average daily population of 380 inmates. The current budget is based on an average population of 480.
Dionne said he has mothballed two housing units at the jail. The superintendent gave a number of reasons for the decline:
The bail reform law, which requires a judge to take into account an inmate’s financial situation when he sets bail.
Drug court, which provides jobs, housing and support to inmates with drug problems if they agree to testing and treatment programs. Some 160 inmates are enrolled in the two drug court programs in Hillsborough County.
Substance Abuse Treatment Community for Offenders, a county-funded program that brings drug counselors to the jail and provides early release for inmates who enroll in support programs.
Mental health court, which supplies mental health counselors to people with mental illnesses who are accused of crime. About 160 take part in that program.
“They’re not in my facility getting mental health treatment. They’re out where they should be, in the community or in hospitals,” Dionne said.
Dionne’s bottom-line budget request is $17.4 million, about $192,000 less than the existing budget.
Dionne identified a number of budget line items with declines. Water and sewer bills are lower because fewer people are taking showers and flushing toilets. The food bill is off by $70,000.
Postage is down because the number of poor inmates, which get free postage, is down.
Medical spending is up because the inmates who remain are sicker, especially due to an upswing in the abuse of methamphetamine, which harms the body more than opioids.
Dionne plans to eliminate the law library in the jail and replace it with electronic kiosks in each housing unit, where inmates will be able to access legal resources as well as email.
Dionne said email will cut down on drugs such as LSD and suboxone that enter the jail through traditional mail.
In questioning from commissioners, Dionne acknowledged that the Legislature is considering tightening up on bail reform. That may increase the jail census, but not substantially, he said.
Some challenges remain, including staff. Dionne has 32 vacancies for corrections officers.
He is currently interviewing and testing to fill some of the vacancies, but Dionne said it would be impossible to fill.
Dionne said he is in negotiations with unions that represent corrections officers, and he expects an agreement will eventually emerge to make the job more appealing.
While cutting the funding for nine positions, commissioners added $35,000 to the jail’s overtime line item.