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Corrections to feel squeezed for bed space next year

$2 million set aside to house inmates in jails

After the Legislature set aside little more than $2 million for housing inmates in county jails, the Department of Corrections has just enough bed space to make it through the next year.

"We'll have to use every available bed to deal with next year's growth," Corrections spokesman Jesse Gallegos said.

The expected increase of 324 inmates next year means Corrections will be operating near full capacity by this time in 2002.

Buying Oxbow Jail from Salt Lake County would have eased some of Corrections' bed shortages, but the Executive Appropriations Committee decided against funding the $19.5 million needed to buy the jail and convert it into a women's prison.

Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman said she is still open to negotiating the sale of Oxbow to the state if the need arises in the future.

"We're always open to looking at it," Workman said. "It works for us to keep it, it works for us to sell."

Corrections officials say they're also interested in possibly purchasing Oxbow somewhere down the road.

For now, though, the Legislature approved a $5 million, 288-bed expansion of the Gunnison Prison along with more than $2 million to pay for inmates to stay in county jails.

Corrections had requested $10 million to pay for county bed space and threatened having to release 300 to 400 prisoners by the end of March of that money wasn't funded.

"It is likely that we will have to come back and ask for a supplemental next year for the jail contracting program," Gallegos said.

For now, the Legislature called for the legislative fiscal analyst to analyze Corrections' needs and methods of housing inmates and present the findings to the Executive Appropriation Committee during the 2001 interim.

The Legislature also passed a bill requiring legislative approval of contracts between Corrections and counties for housing state inmates in local jails. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, said it's important for the state to maintain the proper balance of prison space and inmates who are contracted out to county jails.

"I'm not opposed to the jail contracting concept," Curtis said. "I just want some oversight for it."