Utah County law enforcement officials are using the old Ironton jail in South Provo as a safety valve as space pressures on the new Security Center build.

Sheriff Dave Bateman said Wednesday that 25 beds have been opened up again in the abandoned facility. Those beds will occasionally take work-release and minimal-risk inmates."We have eight work-release prisoners there now," Bateman said. "They've been there for three weeks and will be back in Spanish Fork (at the Security Center) Friday."

However, the beds will remain set up so the option to use them will be available.

Bateman said not only do the beds provide a place for the jail to house inmates when the numbers climb at the Security Center, but keeping the jail at least partially in use keeps the conditional permit for the jail property current.

"If we abandon that for too long a time, we stand to lose that option," Bateman said.

Some say the conditional use permit has already expired and did so six months after the county abandoned the jail.

Commissioner Gary Herbert said he doesn't believe the jail was ever completely vacated. "I think we as a county would reject the idea that we've ever lost the permit," he said. "We've always maintained some incarceration activity there."

Provo zoning administrator Dixon Holmes concurs. "Our position is that they have never vacated."

Neighbors who live near the old Ironton facility have expressed hope that eventually no prisoners will be housed in the jail. Some fear Utah County is keeping the permit viable so the jail can be sold to an enterprise that will house dangerous individuals.

Herbert said the conditional use would go with the eventual sale of the property. But he said use of the old jail on a somewhat temporary basis is based on need, not on "enhancing a future sale."

Bateman echoed that sentiment.

"All I'm trying to do is make sure I have the ability to administer the jail in a safe and prudent manner. If this is how I have to do it, I'm doing to do it," Bateman said.

The new Security Center has 536 beds, but that doesn't necessarily translate into being able to house 536 inmates at one time, he explained. The jail may be overcrowded even if not all the beds are filled.

"We have to keep the female and male prisoners separate. We have to use reasonable procedures to separate other groups. For instance, we've seen an influx in gang members arrested recently," he said. "We have to keep them apart or we see a return to the problems they've had with each other outside."

"Plus, we have the behavioral problems and the unruly who need to be separated from others."

Bateman said the problem isn't so much having space as it is of space management.

"We have more inmates who need secure space and that takes away from our work release space."

Bateman estimates it will take at least two years before a proposed work-release annex is built. During that time he intends to use the Ironton jail beds to take those kind of minimum-risk prisoners.

"I can't afford to be in a situation where I'd be stuck under a consent decree (and have to release prisoners to relieve overcrowding)," he said. "I want to be responsible with the administration of the jail."