MONTICELLO — When Piatt County Sheriff David Hunt took office in 2012, he inherited a state-of-the-art jail that could house 76 prisoners but had an average daily attendance of around 12. With monthly utility bills in the $10,000 range and a staff of 14 corrections employees to pay, he knew something was needed to operate the county Public Safety Building more efficiently.
"I started crunching numbers and thought it was costing taxpayers a lot to run this facility," said Hunt.
Enter the Cook County correction system, which has the opposite problem: too many prisoners for its available cells.
That led to an agreement that, starting this past May, has Cook County sending some of its detainees to facilities in Piatt, Moultrie and DeWitt Counties. Cook County pays $50 per prisoner per day and can house up to 36 at a time at the Piatt County facility.
It has been an economic boon for Piatt County, generating about $321,000 in its first seven months, or about $45,000 per month. Hunt estimates the added annual cost at $150,000 for food and medical care, so the county has already made that back and then some through housing Chicago-area arrestees.
Hunt said there have been no serious problems despite the added inmate population, save a few minor skirmishes.
"Most of the time, if you treat inmates with respect, they're not going to cause you any problems," said Hunt.
DeWitt County Sheriff Jered Shofner, who can take up to 12 Cook County inmates at a time, said detainees generally appreciate being housed in a newer jail, in this case the 1994 building in Clinton that can house a total of 86.
"I've heard many comment they'd rather be housed downstate because it is cleaner, and that they're better taken care of," said Shofner. He said his facility nets $14,000 to $24,000 per month through the agreement with Cook County. DeWitt County also hosts federal inmates, clearing an additional $50,000 a month.
"It offsets taxpayer liability for running the jail," said Shofner, adding that personnel costs are around $500,000 per year.
Hunt added that "the county benefits in several ways. It adds quite a bit of money to the general fund for revenue so that taxes don't go up. It also allows the county board to use that money to benefit other county employees, with benefits and raises."
Moultrie County has taken in around $181,000 since it began housing Cook County prisoners, also in May. Sheriff Jeff Thomas said the county has averaged about 26 Chicago-area inmates during that time in a jail that has a capacity of 56.
Hunt is aware of public concern over housing the new prisoners, and takes it to heart.
"We should always be concerned about what we're doing, but everything that we've done so far has not brought any major issues that we were not able to tackle," he said.
He said the the biggest incident at the jail since May involved a local arrestee, who snapped off a sprinkler head and flooded the booking area.
"I didn't need someone to tell me that, if you go to a bigger city you're going to run into some dangerous people," said Hunt. "But since the facility is built as well as it is, it would take a lot for someone to get out of this facility."
He pointed to cells made out of cast iron and checks and balances when it comes to security checkpoints.
Shofner adds that any decision to house more prisoners is "all about risk management. There is always a risk involved, but the staff is trained to make sure there is safety and security."
He also called jail personnel the "unsung heroes of all this. They are helping keep tax rates low with their efforts."
Hunt agreed, and invited anyone with concerns about jail security to come out for a tour.
"I encourage anyone who wants to come through here and see how people act to call and we'll take them on a tour and show them how well built it is, and how we have a security staff that is well-trained, and we're always working on training them and getting them the knowledge that they need," said the local sheriff.
The first four months of the agreement were the best thus far for Piatt County, with revenues of $45,550 in May, $57,000 for June, $58,900 in July and $52,450 in August. That dropped for the next three months to a low of $30,850 in October, but Hunt said it has picked up again in November and December.