By Jessie Burchette
All options will be on the table today to deal with jail overcrowding when a special task force holds its first meeting.
The options range from Rowan County finding a way to post the bond for more non-violent offenders to quickly building or leasing temporary jail facilities.
The task force is charged with coming up with a plan to sharply cut the number of inmates to avoid state action to close the Rowan County Detention Center.
Built with a capacity of 162 inmates, the facility is averaging a daily population of around 285, excluding 40 inmates being housed in the Sampson County jail.
Commissioners awarded a contract Monday to complete an unfinished section of the jail, which will add 48 beds and give the jail a total capacity of 210 by next year.
Commissioner Jim Sides, who serves on the task force, said today’s meeting will involve the Sheriff’s Office gathering information about options.
The next meeting will likely involve judges and the district attorney, as the county follows up on recommendations from John P. Harkins, chief of the Jails and Detention Section of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The meeting is set for 1:30 p.m. in a conference room of the Sheriff’s Office. A majority of the Board of Commissioners may attend.
Sides said the task force will investigate buildings that the county could construct and open in six to eight months.
Ware Bonsal, the architectural and engineering firm working with the county to add 48 beds to the jail, has designed large, metal detention facilities. It could house non-violent offenders in a dormitory setting.
Sides said the firm designed a facility for Cabarrus County which local and state agencies approved. Cabarrus opted to go with a brick-and-mortar jail.
The county could construct the metal building within six to eight months at a cost of $3 million to $4 million, the commissioner said. And it could be converted to other uses when the county builds a new jail, which is expected to take four years or more.
“Five years down the road, if we build a major complex, we could use the building for a garage,” said Sides.
Another option that might be quicker is temporary space, leased from companies that specialize in temporary solutions.
One of the companies, Proteus of Atlanta, Ga., has set up facilities throughout the South for county, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
“Our methodology is to provide a turn-key relief system and allow a county time needed to come up with a permanent solution,” said Monte Alsup, division manager for Proteus.
Alsup said the company can provide facilities in two to four months, possibly quicker. They require a site that has sewer, water and electricity.
Alsup and Paul Looney, Carolinas regional manager, said the cost depends on what the client wants.
But they estimated Proteus could provide a facility with space for 120 to 160 inmates for the same money the county is now paying Sampson County to house 40 inmates ó $2,000 a day.
Commissioners Sides and Tina Hall met with Looney and other vendors of temporary jail facilities at a law enforcement conference near Greensboro several weeks ago.
Any type of new facility will require hiring additional detention staff which will be an added cost.
Commissioners discussed the possibility of using temporary facilities at their retreat last week, but Sheriff George Wilhelm showed little enthusiasm, urging the board to go forward with a new jail outside downtown Salisbury that would cost an estimated $35 million.
Commissioners said they would rather spend the money in the county and hire county residents than send it to other counties.
Commissioners have been aware that there is a problem of overcrowding and have been working on ways to deal with it, Sides said.
Nothing in the reports from the state jail inspectors indicated the situation was critical and the county was going to be threatened with jail closure, he said.
One evening, Sides Googled jail overcrowding and spent hours reading about the problems. Wake County’s jail, designed to hold around 800 inmates, has more than 1300, he said.
On Tuesday, commissioners received Harkins’ written recommendations for relieving overcrowding.
During the board’s meeting Monday night, Harkins assailed commissioners for failing to improve conditions despite three years of problems.
His recommendations include:
– Transfer inmates to other counties;
– Use electronic house arrest and day reporting centers;
– Accelerate court dockets to clear out inmates with less serious charges who might plead guilty;
– Move inmates sentenced to 30 days or more to the state prison system instead of keeping them in the county jail;
– Find alternatives to jail for non-support cases.
Along with his recommendations Harkins cited the history of the overcrowding, writing that in January 2005, the average daily population was 210. By January of this year, the average daily population was 285, which did not include the inmates housed in Sampson County.
Harkins also rebuked commissioners for suggesting he was trying to make an example out of the county by closing the jail. “Considering the efforts that this office has made, we find this accusation to be uninformed and unconstructive.”
He wrote that he requested a meeting with the entire board of commissioners because “previous meetings and correspondences were obviously unsuccessful.”
Chairman Arnold Chamberlain replied with an e-mail asking for information on all such meetings and the reports provided to other counties with similar jail issues.
He took issue with Harkins’ presentation to the Rowan board. “I simply do not understand a representative working for our state government … presenting himself to our citizens in such a confrontational manner. To suggest that our entire board was not informed of the jail report and working on the situation was, at the least, amateurish,” wrote Chamberlain, adding, “To think that a public battle would accomplish anything is astonishing to me.”
Chamberlain copied the e-mail to the same list of state and county officials which Harkins had copied.
April 4 deadline
The state agency is requiring the corrective action plan be submitted by April 4.
If the state and county can not reach agreement on a plan to bring the daily population down to 215, Harkins told commissioners, he would begin action to close the jail.
Chamberlain and Sides said they expect to have a plan ready by April 4.
Officials have acknowledged that the increase in jail population has exceeded all estimates.
Major Tim Bost, who operated the jail for many years, told commissioners last week that the rate of growth is alarming.
He noted that in 2005, they had projected that the average daily population for 2007 would be 227. It was actually 277.
And projections have been updated increasing the numbers.
By Jessie Burchette