By Jessie Burchette
The state’s top jail official says Rowan County has 30 days to come up with a plan to ease jail overcrowding ó or the state will close the county jail.
John Harkins, chief of the Jails and Detention Section of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, touched off a mini-firestorm with his remarks to the Rowan County Board of Commissioners on Monday.
Harkins said county officials have been aware that the jail is overcrowded for years but haven’t taken corrective action.
He ticked off the average daily attendance ranging from 265 to 294 ó in a jail built to house 162 inmates.
“I don’t think you are aware of how bad it is,” Harkins said, pointing out that he has been notifying the county for three years about the problem.
Harkins went on to tell the board that if the “we can’t come to an agreement to (cut the number of inmates) to 215 … my recommendation is to initiate closure of the jail.”
“That makes no sense at all,” commissioners Chairman Arnold Chamberlain said. “You’re going to close it; we will have no space.”
“It’s unsafe, someone will get hurt,” Harkins said.
Chamberlain asked about other jails across the state. Harkins said as many as 45 percent are overcrowded, adding “You’re running 100 over.”
Chamberlain asked Harkins how many jails the state has closed. Harkins said none have been closed.
“Are you here to make an example out of us?” Chamberlain asked. He said such a message could have been delivered in private.
Harkins comments infuriated Commissioner Jim Sides, as well as Chamberlain.
Sides pointed out that the county is spending $1 million a year to house 40 inmates in the Sampson County jail, and has just awarded a $4 million contract to add 48 beds to the Rowan Detention Center. He also pointed out that the board is looking at temporary facilities.
“We are doing what we feel we can,” Sides said.
Harkins shot back, “I don’t think the public wants to hear, ‘We’re doing everything we can.’ ”
“This doesn’t scream extremely serious problem,” Vice Chairman Chad Mitchell said, referring to a 15-page Feb. 19 inspection report on the jail.
Harkins cited previous meetings with county officials and top law enforcement officers, saying they know the situation.
Harkins apparently met with former County Manager Bill Cowan nearly six month ago to discuss the jail, but did not meet with commissioners.
Comparing the jail to a school bus, Harkins said if you have 60 kids on a school bus with a capacity of 42, something will get done.
At another point Harkins said the state can’t force the county to build a new jail, but can close the existing jail. He said it is unsafe for inmates and staff, suggesting it’s a matter of time until the county faces a lawsuit.
Commissioner Tina Hall asked Harkins for his recommendations on how to deal with the situation.
As Harkins ticked off a list of recommendations, including getting the court system to make changes in how it does business, Sides and Chamberlain interrupted to point out that commissioners have no control over the judges or the district attorney.
Harkins suggested moving prisoners sentenced to 30 days or more to the state prison system, expediting guilty pleas through an extra day of court and other methods of easing overcrowding.
Harkins said he doesn’t expect the county to get the number of inmates down to 215 in 30 days, but he wants a plan for how to get there.
Sheriff George Wilhelm said the steps Harkins suggested are already being done. He told commissioners that he has been calling for increased jail space since he was first elected in 1998.
He offered no recommendations except to say that he needs more employees for the Detention Center.
During the board’s retreat last week, commissioners discussed various types of temporary jail facilities that can be constructed in a year or less. Wilhelm argued against temporary facilities, saying they deteriorate rapidly.
He favors a new jail outside downtown Salisbury at an estimated cost of $35 million. Building a new jail would take an estimated three to four years.
Chamberlain appointed Sides and Mitchell to a committee to work with Wilhelm and court officials to come up with a plan within 30 days.
“I agree 100 over capacity is not acceptable,” Chamberlain said.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jessie Burchette