Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

October 7, 2012

Jail suicide —  Incident shouldn’t prompt closure

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— The hanging death of a suspect in a Bluefield homicide investigation has sparked renewed fears over the proposed closure of the Bluefield City Jail.

The inmate committed suicide in the city jail last week while he was awaiting transport to the Southern Regional Jail in Beckley. While an unfortunate incident, city officials should exercise restraint as it relates to the future of the city jail. Any impulsive decision to close the jail without appropriate input and debate would have a crippling domino effect on law enforcement officials across Mercer County.

Former Bluefield City Manager Andy Merriman had recommended closing the jail earlier this year. All funding for the jail was also removed from the city’s fiscal 2012-2013 budget by Merriman. That move was met with obvious concern across Mercer County’s law enforcement community. Merriman’s decision was put on hold by City Attorney Brian Cochran, who correctly argued that additional time was needed to study the impact of the proposed closure.

That discussion is still needed. Without a local jail officers would have to transport prisoners to and from the Southern Regional Jail much more frequently, according to Mercer County Sheriff Meadows. Using deputies to make additional transports would have an impact on the number of deputies available for patrol across Mercer County.

“Without a local jail, we will be spending a lot of time on the interstate,” Meadows said last week. “It would cost us a lot of money if the local jail was closed, but I can understand their point, too. It’s expensive to operate a local jail, but it is a service that is needed.”

Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ash says he is aware of the vital service the jail serves in the county. “I assume it remains open,” Ash added last week.

However, without designated funding for the jail in the city’s operating budget, funds have had to be used from other positions in the city that were not filled to keep the facility operational, according to Cochran.

“It’s a financial strain on the city,” Cochran said. “It’s not just a concern in Bluefield. It’s a statewide issue. I don’t think the burden has to be placed squarely on the shoulders of Bluefield. The city is impacted by the expense, but we see the jail as a good thing to have from a law enforcement perspective.”

We agree. Obviously, security measures at the city jail will have to be reviewed in light of last week’s jail-cell suicide. However, any rush to judgment to close the jail based upon last week’s hanging incident would be unfortunate. We still need a meaningful discussion, public forum and debate over the merits of keeping the jail open versus closing it.

We often hear a lot of talk about the need for regional cooperation. The need for Bluefield and Princeton to work together, and the need for the Mercer County Commission to work with the cities of Bluefield and Princeton. We see this as a perfect opportunity for county and city officials to work together.

This as a wonderful opportunity for the county commissioners to work with city officials in Bluefield to come up with a plan to help keep citizens safe, to keep the regional jail problem from getting further out of control, and to help law enforcement across the county.

City officials, and the commissioners, should get to work immediately on a plan that will help all parties involved.