If you haven't met Newton County Sheriff Keith Slape, you've missed knowing a man who strikes me as the epitome of what every peace officer should be. Along with a ready sense of humor and infectious laugh, Slape displays a healthy measure of ingenuity with common sense that makes him easy to like and respect, probably even when he's attaching a set of cuffs.
It's those qualities, I'm certain, that led to his ascension through the politicized ranks of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association to become its president last year. Winning over a state with 75 sheriffs, each of whom runs for public election, has to be an impressive feat in itself.
We visited last weekend during the 10th annual Paige Slape benefit golf tournament at Diamond City (named after his late daughter Alyssa "Paige" who perished May 24, 2008, in an automobile accident). The tournament, attended by many in law enforcement and staffed by former friends of personable, cheerleading 17-year-old Paige, raises money for a scholarship in her name, which this year benefited two more students in their quest for higher education. What better tribute and investment?
While the day was ideal for late August and the golf enjoyable, I found the account of Slape's futile struggle to get the Newton County Quorum Court to abide by state jail-funding law downright fascinating.
One of the least affluent counties nestled in the heart of the Ozarks, its good folks finally voted to build a critically needed new jail that began receiving inmates in 2014. That was some good news for the good folks there who struggled for decades to make do with the woefully inadequate 104-year-old rock version near the town square.
Slape said his problem arose when members of the Quorum Court that oversee county funding announced there wasn't enough money to adequately maintain and operate the new jail, despite the law saying they must. That was after voters had twice denied a proposal to fund operations of the jail they'd voted back in 2008 to build. Yeah, strange, I know. But the voter denials didn't free the county from legal obligation to the facility.
Slape even went before that governing court to explain the law that holds them accountable. He said he was met with reasoning along the lines of "Ya can't get blood from a turnip."
So Slape did what any resourceful sheriff might do to move forward (imagine Andy Griffith). He got innovative. First, as do other county jails, he leased as much bed space as legally possible to the Department of Corrections to house the state's overflow prisoners. In return, the jail received payments of $30 a day for each prisoner.
The jail's inmate population (with a 30-bed capacity) usually ranges between 20 and 30 daily. As of last week, the jail held 24 state and 8 local inmates. "We need to house 25 state inmates a day just to break even with expenses," said Slape, adding that his office also is legally required to keep vacancies to accommodate local arrests.
This is where the sheriff's entrepreneurial side emerged. Besides the state's compensation, Slape decided more than a year ago to open what I like to call Sheriff Slape's Incarceration Cafe for Hungrier Inmates. The menu consists of burger nights ($8 for a single, more for additional patties) to nacho and taco nights (what, no brats?). These are offered besides the inmates' tax-paid daily meals. Purchases are drawn from each inmate's personal jail account created by contributions from relatives and friends.
Former longtime jail administrator John Griffith, also at the tournament, told me state inmates housed in other jails have caught a whiff of what's been cooking at the Newton County jail and some even asked to be reassigned there. "It's become a popular place," he said. "Word of the food has gotten around."
Some might say the Quorum Court has forced the sheriff into resorting to any means so he can uphold his end of the law. After hearing his struggle, I'm wondering where (for the love of a triple cheeseburger) is the prosecutor or judge who will step up and insist the Newton County Court follows the law.
Deputy Sheriff Glen Wheeler, a candidate for election to replace Slape (who leaves office in December 2018) also was at the event. I asked how he'd feel about keeping the Incarceration Cafe open for business should he be elected. "It's a shame we have to think this way just to be able to lawfully operate our jail," he said. "But these special food nights also have become a game-changer for the jail to be able to simply run this facility. You bet if necessary, I'd keep the burgers, nachos and tacos coming since it helps."
Meanwhile, Sheriff and "Chef" Slape, ever mindful of his full range of responsibilities, reminded me that with football season just around the corner he's seriously considering the possibility of adding chicken wings to his menu. What, no pizza?
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at email@example.com.
Editorial on 08/22/2017
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