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Seeking an equitable solution

Published 8:47pm Saturday, August 31, 2013

Considering the state of things at the U.S. Capitol, hoping for the folks in Washington, D.C., to come to the rescue of the Western Tidewater Regional Jail in Suffolk might seem to be a bad bet. But that’s where the jail authority’s board of directors finds itself following a bit of questionable maneuvering recently between the city of Virginia Beach and the U.S. Marshals Service.

The Virginia Beach jail made an unsolicited bid to house federal prisoners that severely undercut the charge levied by the WTRJ for those prisoners. Suffolk charges the federal government $65 per day, per inmate and tacks on additional fees for transporting those prisoners to court appearances. Virginia Beach’s bid came in at $55, with no extra charge for transportation.

What made the offer especially hard for folks at the regional jail to swallow was the fact that they had no opportunity to make a counter-offer. Instead, they received notice just two weeks ago that the U.S. Marshals would begin moving most of their inmates on Oct. 1, with some to remain in Suffolk, because the Virginia Beach jail is unable to house them all.

The change is significant to the regional jail because the payments it receives for federal prisoners account for 15 to 19 percent of its annual operating budget, about $2.7 million. Some savings would be realized from things like not having to feed and clothe those extra prisoners, but officials say closing the revenue gap would require painful cuts to non-mandated training and personnel, and it could require the jail authority’s municipal participants, including Suffolk, to ante up more each year for jail operations.

There’s some thought that the U.S. Marshals Service’s decision is about more — or less, depending on your perspective — than money. If the marshals were just looking to save money, officials ask, why would they not have chosen to house federal prisoners in Norfolk, which charges only $41 per day, per inmate (although it does charge for transportation)?

Considering the possibility that there’s a political component to the move, it’s especially appropriate that the jail authority’s board is seeking help from Washington, where Congressmen Randy Forbes, Scott Rigell and Bobby Scott have promised to help.

That help already has resulted in a promise that marshals will temporarily stop moving inmates. Suffolk taxpayers can only join the jail board in hoping the usual brokenness of that political system will be healed long enough for legislators to convince the U.S. Marshals to come to a solution that is equitable for the Western Tidewater Regional Jail.

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