A new 500-bed facility would create an economy of scale that could save all three counties up to 20 percent on their bottom line, said Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop.
The regional jail, most likely located in Bell County, could also house state prisoners that would tap additional revenue. The overcrowded Harlan County Detention Center lacks the space to house state prisoners.
According to Harlan County Jailer Deny Pace, the 64-bed facility has averaged over 96 inmates this year, leaving overflow prisoners to sleep on floor mats.
Pace said the county spent over $20,000 housing county prisoners in other jails during the last fiscal year.
Preliminary estimates price the regional facility at $13 million, with a total monthly debt service of $80,000.
An estimated annual revenue stream of over $600,000 in state prisoner fees would help defer some of the bond payments, said Grieshop.
More prisoners means additional expenses, cautioned Pace, who says many details, including prisoner transportation, have yet to be finalized.
"I think the regional jail could be a very good idea, with the stipulation that an administrator be hired to run the financial end," he said. "If you had a 500-bed jail and it was mismanaged, it could bankrupt all three counties overnight."
Under threat of closure, the Harlan County Detention Center was renovated two years ago at a cost of $900,000.
Built in the early 1980s, the jail failed to pass a Kentucky Department of Corrections safety inspection.
During the renovation, the Department of Corrections ordered the facility closed, costing the county an additional $120,000 to transport and house local prisoners elsewhere.
The Knox County jail has been closed twice in the last 12 months. The first closure came by order of the Department of Corrections for exceeding maximum inmate capacity.
Grieshop predicted the counties will decide whether to pursue the project within three months.