Inmates have ideas to ease jail overcrowding
By Elizabeth Cook
The inmates at the Rowan County Detention Center have a solution for jail overcrowding:
Let them out.
Lower their bail so they can be free while they await trial.
Speed up their trials or accept their guilty pleas so they can be released or move on to the state prison system.
Or — some claim — let them go because they’re innocent.
The detention dormitories grow noisy when you start asking inmates what the county should do about the jail’s overcrowded dormitories and pods.
The jail is not the problem, they say. It’s the system.
At this particular moment ó 11:30 a.m. Friday, March 7 ó 268 men and women are on the detention center roll, a little below its daily average of 279.
Forty-one Rowan inmates are in the Sampson County jail, so that leaves 227 inmates in a jail built for 162.
What’s 65 extra people among accused felons and misdemeanants?
A lone female officer armed with pepper spray and a stern look stands inside Dorm 1 this morning. She’s watching over 66 men housed in this area designed for 40.
Clad in bright orange, the inmates are scattered around the room, passing the time.
Several Hispanic men play cards at a large table. The jail generally holds all Hispanics in the same dorm to ease communication ó and so they can protect each other, says Nathaniel Phillips, the detention officer leading this tour. They tend to separate themselves from the rest of the inmates, he says, and most are quiet.
The rest of the inmates are doing whatever they can to pass the time ó read, talk, listen to MP3 players, play cards. One or two are napping on bunks.
Yes, there are mattresses on the floor where the overflow inmates sleep, and they have to step over each other. But cramped quarters are not what bothers most of these men the most.
No, their greatest enemy is time.
Only 34 inmates in the facility are serving sentences. The rest are awaiting trial. They cannot be sure when they’ll have their day in court. They don’t know how much longer they’ll be behind bars if the judge hands down a sentence.
They’ve got time on their hands and little else, and that’s their No. 1 beef.
Eric Hyman says he’s been in jail “going on 3 years,” and the detention officer checks the roster ó 770 days.
Hyman’s bond is $200,000, which he can’t make. His charges: robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault with a deadly weapon and motor vehicle larceny.
Hyman says the district attorney and judges are holding suspects in jail too long. “It’s not the jail’s fault,” he says, “it’s the court’s fault.”
Antoine Crowder has been in jail 35 days so far, accused of possessing and selling drugs. He has something to say about the crowded conditions.
“We can’t get no sleep,” he says, because the dorm is noisy. “We got to smell everything they bring in here.”
As Crowder is warming up to the subject of odors, Antonio Lamar Cowan steps forward and says, “Pray for me.” He’s been in the jail 23 days, accused of assault, and he wants to get out to see his new son, he says. His bond is $75,000.
Another man complains that he’s been denied a reduction in his $350,000 bond on a drug charge.
Several more gather around to tell their stories.
Gary Lowe says he’s been here a year and a half waiting to be tried for assault inflicting serious injury. He can’t make his $10,000 bond.
Stacey Chamberlain says he’s been in seven months, accused of assault on “my baby mama” ó who he says visits him at the jail. His bond: $65,000.
A man accused of robbery complains that his $500,000 bond is too high. Questioning reveals that he made bond on a previous charge and got arrested again. That might explain a half-million-dollar bond.
The complaints come in a torrent from all sides. Court-appointed attorneys don’t get anything done. Officers mess with inmates’ mail. (“Isn’t that a federal charge?” Hyman asks.) There’s no real library. The books are junk.
“We need some recreation,” one man says. “We’re packed in here like animals.”
A Hispanic man steps forward, almost whispering.
“They need to do something for the Hispanic population,” he says urgently. He and the others sit there in jail, waiting for prison and what they know is coming: deportation.
“Deport us,” the man says.
He seems eager to leave.
Dorm 2, half the size of Dorm 1, is supervised by a male officer today. He’s working behind the large window of an office, looking out on the inmates.
This group is older and more laid back, guide Phillips says. It includes inmates who have ongoing medical concerns like diabetes but are not sick.
The 28-bed unit is quieter. Its books are less beaten up. There are board games. But no one would mistake it for Club Med.
“I been here three years and hadn’t been to court yet ó on something I didn’t do,” says James Rumph. Charged with first-degree sex with a minor, he is under $300,000 bond.
Robert Scott has been sentenced for his crime ó something to do with a state trooper ó but is appealing and therefore still in jail. He mentions Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “In two years, I ain’t seen daylight.”
Another man pipes up.
“Here’s the real reason this jail is overcrowded,” says Johnny Arey. He’s being held on a charge of second degree trespassing “in my own house” ó there’s obviously another side to this story ó and he’s scheduled to be in court July 9. He’s been here 21 days, and he doesn’t want to wait until July 9.
“I want to plead guilty ó if they just get me in court,” Arey says.
Tyrone Vinson, charged with murder, has been in jail two years, a span he knows is likely to stretch on because the case involves 12 co-defendants, he says. He doesn’t blame the detention center for the long wait or crowding.
“It’s not the jail,” he says. “It’s the system.”
The section of the jail that actually has cells ó the pods ó makes the shortage of beds most obvious.
Today is a light day. There are only 58 men in this pod’s 48 cells. The average is said to be 75.
The people are treated to these accommodations either have asked to be in a pod, caused too much trouble in a dorm, might be a suicide risk or need protection from the general jail population.
Cells designed to allow minimal space for one man now hold two, in several cases, with a mattress on the floor wedged up against the toilet.
Cellmates are a study in contrasts. In one cell, 33-year-old Brian Gibson awaits trial for murder. He shares his cell with 18-year-old Thomas James Bailey, who says he’s in for violating probation on a misdemeanor larceny.
In jail since May 2005, Gibson has had many roommates. “He says I’m the best one,” says Bailey, who’s been in for 42 days and expects to get out soon.
This, they say, is one of the bigger cells; it’s not as cramped as it could be.
Inmates are allowed out of their cells only two hours a day to take showers, make phone calls or use the recreation room.
In another cell, a man who says he’s from New Jersey and is Muslim complains about having to pray next to a toilet. This is one of the worst jails he’s been in, he says.
His cellmate is a happier man, and for good reason. He went to court yesterday and finally got sentenced on his assault charge ó 27 to 34 months, he says. He should be transported to a state prison soon.
After being in the Rowan County Detention Center for a year and a half, he says he feels great.
“I feel blessed to be able to leave this jail.”