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Ellis County inmates being housed in Dodge City

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The no-vacancy sign continues to shine over the Ellis County Jail, forcing jailers to shuffle inmates in what amounts to a giant game of musical chairs -- only this one is no game and it requires handcuffs and leg irons.

Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin recently sent five inmates from the Ellis County Jail south to Dodge City, where there's room in the Ford County Jail.

Moving those inmates, he said, opened up a wing in the Ellis County Jail, allowing female inmates -- previously housed in Stockton -- to be returned.

Still, five Ellis County inmates remain in Stockton.

That left 33 inmates "upstairs," Harbin said recently, referring to the cells in the Ellis County facility, located on the second floor of the Law Enforcement Center.

The only problem is that's still three more than the jail legally can hold.

A week earlier, he said, there were 47 people in the 30-person-capacity jail, but many were released quickly under the supervision of community corrections.

"Community corrections is a big help in all this," Harbin said of the problem of too many inmates.

While overcrowding at the Ellis County Jail is virtually an everyday occurrence, Harbin won't talk about that part of the issue. He won't invite a federal lawsuit dealing with overcrowding.

He is, however, willing to talk about the need for more room and how the county is shipping inmates to jails with empty cells.

Housing inmates in Dodge City is costing Ellis County $40 a day, although the county has to stand any medical costs as well as the burden of transporting them to court hearings in Ellis County.

It's the same in Rooks County as well, but the cost there is $35 a day and the distance isn't as great.

Ironically, both are cheaper than the going rate for Ellis County, although with an overflow, there's no chance the county could charge its prevailing rate of $45 a day.

But there's the staff time to haul the inmates to Dodge City, which Harbin said is approximately a two-hour drive. The entire process takes about five hours for two deputies.

"We still have two vans," he said, "and we use them both."

Harbin's looking at the idea of hiring a couple additional jailers, but he's first wanting to see what will be required taking the inmates that far away.

He's only going to Dodge City, because that's where space is available.

"That's because that's where they have room," he said. "Everybody's full."