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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith, has authorized crews from Purgatory Jail, including state prisoners, to clean up an area in St. George.

ST. GEORGE — Despite the Utah Department of Corrections' decision to yank its inmates from road cleanup crews, the Washington County sheriff is sending them out to clean up the streets.

"We're putting our work crews back out because that's my authority," said Sheriff Kirk Smith.

Last week, a Deseret Morning News reporter and a photographer observed a crew of inmates cleaning up a park just off Middleton Drive. The sheriff said that crew included some state inmates.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office interprets its contract with the Corrections Department to allow it to decide when crews go out on the roads — so the sheriff ordered the inmates back onto the streets, supervised by Purgatory Jail officials.

"Everybody benefits from it," said Washington County Sheriff's Lt. Jake Adams. "They helped to build a library. They pick up trash. They do so many things. It's not just the jail that it impacts when they aren't out working. Look at the freeway right now. It's covered in litter."

Recent decisions by Corrections brass have ruffled the feathers of many Utah sheriffs who house state prison inmates in county jails. Most recently, the edicts that ended road crews and yanked first-degree felons from county jails have upset some sheriffs — including Smith — who said they were never consulted.

"We manage our facilities well, and to be told by the Department of Corrections that you can do this and you can't do that, it's got everybody riled up," the sheriff said.

The hurt feelings led to a pair of recent meetings between some of the sheriffs and Corrections officials. The department has pledged to communicate better with the sheriffs, said Corrections chief Tom Patterson.

"It is, indeed, a balancing act," he said Monday. "I understand the frustrations that the sheriffs had, but it's an adjustment that needed to be made. Ultimately, the Department of Corrections has to make the decision. We cannot defer that responsibility."

The department houses inmates in county jails because it's cost effective and helps with bed-space issues.

Corrections pulled its first-degree and violent felons from county jails after a series of escapes, including two convicted murderers escaping from the Daggett County Jail and a convicted rapist jumping a fence at the Beaver County Jail. Patterson also ordered a review of security at all jails with which the state contracts, rankling some sheriffs.

In a letter Patterson recently sent to Utah sheriffs, he pledged greater communication and praised the jails for their professionalism.

"The department certainly never meant to insinuate that jails are not safe locations to house state inmates or that they are lacking in professionalism and expertise," he wrote. "It is our goal to strengthening (sic) our relationship and to learn from one another."

Last week, Smith said he received a list of inmates who could be housed in the Purgatory Jail. Of the 50 or so names, only four met his criteria. The rest had problems, including assaults on Corrections officers and other disciplinary issues.

"I've had convicted murderers in here, and they honestly are just not a problem," Smith said. "We can handle and manage these people."

Patterson said he understands the sheriffs' frustrations, but he is dealing with the reality of escapes.

"We're also dealing with a perception by the public that when someone is sentenced to prison, their expectation is that they will not wind up in a county jail," he said.

The Department of Corrections pulled its road crews in October after two inmates attempted to escape and two others were found to be intoxicated. The Utah Department of Transportation contracts with Corrections at a cost of $600,000 a year.

Patterson said it is still his preference that inmates be kept off the road crews.

"I can't back down off of my concern. We've got to have greater oversight when we allow an inmate outside the fences," he said.

Another meeting between the sheriffs and Corrections officials is set for December, where they will review some of their policies.

Smith likened his relationship with the Department of Corrections to a marriage. The two sides had a "little fight" and needed to see a marriage counselor. Smith believes the union can be saved.

E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com