MOULTRIE -- When Sheriff Al Whittington reinstated the county jail's detainment agreement for Immigration and Naturalization Service inmates, he anticipated a pretty good return. What he didn't guess was that amount almost doubling to bring in more than $2.4 million in money and goods.

For 2002, Colquitt County budgeted $638,750 in revenues from the INS program, but it looks like $1.2 million will come in during the fiscal year.

"That's cash money that'll go into the general funds of Colquitt County," Whittington said. "That will offset or at least help our tax burden."

Right now the county is housing about 72 detainees with another 30 or so coming in soon. Since August, the INS program has averaged 90 to 100 detainees per month, Jail Administrator Julius Cox said. At $35 per detainee per day, that's a fair chunk of change. Originally, county officials expected an average of only 50 detainees.

On top of an expected $1.2 million per year, the county would be able to receive a match of government surplus goods. So, in essence, the county could get $2.4 million from the federal government for its service.

Since August, about $50,000 worth of detergent, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shoes, socks, uniforms, storage containers, coolers, handcuffs, leg chains, basketballs, checker games and other items have come free of charge to the county from the INS, Cox said.

In 1995, the jail was the beneficiary of a load of 5,600 olive drab towels, surplus from the Desert Storm operation. They're still using them at the jail.

"They're not some of the prettiest things you've ever seen, but they'll dry you off," he said.

"That's property that we acquire from the federal government and we're not spending Colquitt County taxes on," Whittington added.

Also, the sheriff's department is compensated $25 per hour for transport costs if a detainee needs to go to the doctor or hospital or if he needs prescription medicines. So far that compensation amounts to more than $6,100 since August.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Marshals Service, the agency which channels INS prisoners and other federal prisoners, was looking to expand in South Georgia, and officials liked Moultrie's location, near I-75 and I-10. The sheriff's department negotiated a 15-year contract with the U.S. Marshals to accept up to 35 federal inmates at any given time and in return got $750,000 to help build a third detainment area onto the jail, Whittington said.

Colquitt County began housing INS detainees in June 1997. In July 1999, former Sheriff Jack Lanier ended the county's arrangement. At that time, the jail averaged about 26 prisoners, bringing in a total of $703,245 for INS detainees over that 26-month period, county officials said.

If the number of detainees stays at the current level, Whittington and Cox think that federal funding may be available to build another pod. Cox pointed to an $8.5 million facility expansion in Etowah County in Alabama completely funded by the INS.

"We're trying to do the same thing they did in Alabama," Whittington said, expressing his willingness to sign a new contract obligating the county to house 100 detainees.

"When we decided to renegotiate with INS, basically it cost us the same thing whether we had one (INS) inmate or if we had 100 inmates it's going to cost us the same thing as far as manpower and utilities. The (pod) would remain open. ... We would have to maintain the facility anyway," Whittington said.

Cox added that the biggest expense is meals, which amounts to less than $10 per day per inmate. Other large expenses are water and sewer.

Before Sept. 11, Colquitt County had an INS officer to handle the legal end full time at the jail, but he has since become a sky marshal. Currently, an INS officer comes in about three days a week until a full time replacement is placed.

-- By Lori Glenn

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