Awaiting justice: New jail pod should ease overcrowding
By Shavonne Potts
The state told Rowan County last year it needed to come up with a solution to its jail overcrowding.
The Rowan County Detention Center’s capacity was supposed to be 162 inmates. In the past few years, far more have filled the jail.
In 2008, the average daily population for the jail has been in the mid-to-upper-200s. At times, the number of inmates reached 300 or more.
In September, the average population was 295. The high count for that month was 320 inmates. During that time, 40 more inmates were housed in Sampson County.
On Dec. 30, the most recent available count, 268 Rowan County inmates were being held. Thirty-three of them were housed in Sampson County, with the rest in the Detention Center in Salisbury.
The county pays $50 per inmate, per day to house them in another county.
Officials say several factors cause overcrowding, including multiple offenders. In about a dozen cases, inmates are awaiting trial in the county jail for murder-related crimes in which more than one person has been charged.
The county has been working on a solution to jail overcrowding. Although it won’t solve the immediate problem, it is a start, officials say.
Work is nearing completion on a new 48-bed pod in the Detention Center. For years, the pod had been a near-empty shell. Last year, construction began to finish that pod.
“Of course 48 more beds is going to help a lot,” Sheriff George Wilhelm says.
The new pod is being designed as a special-population pod that will take care of inmates chosen for disciplinary measures.
“Most of the people in there will be the troublemakers, and those who won’t get out but for an hour a day,” he said.
The pod will also house inmates who need special attention.
Each of the pod’s cells is designed to hold one person. These inmates will be separated from each other.
“It should make the rest of the population safer, Wilhelm said.
Maj. Tim Bost, who has been the sheriff’s office liaison and reports the construction status to the county, said the staff for the new pod has been hired.
He said the project should be complete by mid-April.
The new pod is similar to the old pods, Bost said. “They are mirror-image pods, except the new pod is closed and the old pod is open.”
The old open pod has no barriers. The officer sits in the middle of the pod among the inmates, who are allowed out for a couple of hours a day.
In the new pod, there will be an elevated control tower, similar to a bird cage. It will be completely enclosed and give the officer sight and access to both floors.
The pod will also feature sliding doors. The old pod has doors that open slightly and are “bumped” open the remainder of the way.
Inmates in the new pod will receive food trays through an opening, rather than through an opened door. This opening will also be used to handcuff inmates before opening the cell door.
The new pod will include two padded cells for people who have come into the jail for psychiatric commitments or temporary holds.
To reduce jail crowding, the county also uses a pre-trial release program. The program is coordinated by Buddy Poplin, who makes funds available to post bond for people who are not considered a threat to others or a flight risk, but are unable to pay their own bail.
Without Poplin’s work with the pre-trial release program, there would be 200 or more additional people in the jail, Wilhelm says.
One option to relieve overcrowding is to expand the existing detention center upward. Wilhelm says that may not be possible because of building restrictions intended to make the building safe in an earthquake.
Another possibility is to construct a permanent larger jail on a plat of land in the county, perhaps on Airport Road. This permanent jail would use pods that would connect to each other. A single pod might contain 40 inmates.
“This idea is at least two years away,” Wilhelm says.
The advantage of such pods would be the ability to add to them in the future. Wilhelm suggests adding to the pod structure every five to 10 years.
Wilhelm points to the lower cost of paying for the construction of additional pods over the course of five or so years instead of a lump sum cost right now.
It is up to the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to determine the final solution to additional jail space.