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Erie County is taking the first steps toward deciding whether to expand its jail permanently downtown or in Alden.

County Executive Gorski asked the County Legislature this week to hire a consultant at a cost of $135,000 to come up with guidelines. His request goes to the County Legislature Thursday for consideration.

County officials want to look at possible locations to serve into the next century and also at providing for a couple hundred prisoners in dormitories next year.

"The report will point us in a direction," said Public Works Commissioner John C. Loffredo.

The expansion could run into several millions or tens of millions of dollars, with financing partly overlapping the county's ongoing $54.5 million downtown courthouse project. "A high price tag takes longer," Loffredo said.

For several months, county administrators have discussed with state officials eliminating double-bunking in Alden, a situation created to end crowding prisoners in the downtown jail at 134 W. Eagle St.

The county opened the 200 beds for inmates waiting to go to court downtown, although the correctional facility was designed for prisoners already sentenced and serving less than a year.

Because separate unions represent jail and correctional facility employees, the new beds are under control of the sheriff, although within the correctional facility.

Frederick Netzel, superintendent of the correctional facility, said that the consultant hired by the county will advise on shelter, fencing, utilities, roads, fire safety, prisoner walkways and secure ports between areas.

Housing prisoners -- long-range or short-range -- involves a lot more than just adding beds, he said.

"Before we arbitrarily build or start putting down trailers for prisoners, we should find out where our problems are and how we can do it effectively," Netzel said. "We don't want to throw our money away."

Netzel said the consultant also may recommend adding floors to the present jail at 40 Delaware Ave., expanding to the nearby county building at 134 West Eagle St. or finding additional space downtown.

Gorski's request comes on the heels of a federal court ruling setting capacity limits on the holding center -- the jail -- at 40 Delaware Ave. A federal judge ruled that the jail must provide each prisoner with a bed, or cot and bedding, and set a five-day limit on temporary housing -- permitted only in an emergency -- in court-hold areas, atrium and chapel.

Alden and the holding center are 22 miles apart, a costly difference when it comes to transporting prisoners between the holding center and court, Netzel said.

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