LITTLE ROCK — The Phillips County sheriff does not have authority to transport prisoners to facilities outside of Arkansas for temporary housing as they await court proceedings, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said in an opinion Thursday.
The idea of housing some of the county’s prisoners in Mississippi had been floated as a way to help the county deal with the difficulties created when its jail closed April 30. County officials said at the time that the 30-year-old jail in Helena-West Helena was too deteriorated to remain open.
In his opinion Thursday, requested by a state legislator, McDaniel said an Arkansas law states that "where there is no jail in his or her county or the jail of the county is insufficient, (the sheriff) may commit any person in his or her custody … to a jail in some other county located in this state, provided the sheriff of the other county consents."
McDaniel wrote, "I take the express designation of jails in counties ‘located in this state’ to mean the exclusion of jails located outside the state. It is my opinion, then, that a sheriff may not take a person described in your question to be held in an out-of-state jail."
In an interview, Phillips County Sheriff Neal Byrd did not dispute McDaniel’s opinion but said that county officials would continue to explore the idea. Attorney general’s opinions are non-binding.
"We’re going to look into it further — anything to help us, because we don’t know if this situation is going to get worse," he said. "We may run out of bed space."
Helena-West Helena is just across the Mississippi River from Mississippi. Byrd said that as of Thursday the county had 52 prisoners divided between three eastern Arkansas counties and that transporting them was "very costly" for Phillips County.
Another idea that has been discussed is releasing some prisoners with GPS-equipped ankle monitors, he said.
As for long-term solutions to the problem, Byrd said the county may look at joining with four or five other counties to build a regional jail — or the county may build its own new jail, if voters will support it.
"Once we get to that point, then the people are going to decide if they want to or if we’ll even be able to build a jail. Of course, we need one. We need one yesterday," he said.