jail panel: overcrowding not so dire

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
Salisbury Post
Members of a committee formed to suggest solutions to Rowan County’s jail woes agreed Friday the situation might not be as dire as a state official said earlier this week.
A task force composed of everyone from officials with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office to county commissioners to District Attorney Bill Kenerly met at the Sheriff’s Office during the afternoon.
They gathered in response to a report from John P. Harkins, chief of the Jails and Detention Section of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Harkins told county commissioners Monday night that Rowan County must complete a plan to rectify jail overcrowding problems within 30 days. If not, county officials could run the risk of the state closing the facility.
“Surely he didn’t mean close the jail,” Kenerly said toward the beginning of Friday’s meeting.
“That’s exactly what he said, and in the conversation I had with him, that’s exactly what he meant,” County Commissioner Jim Sides responded. “It’s unrealistic.”
Sheriff George Wilhelm said Harkins’ report on the Rowan County Detention Center might have been a bit harsh.
He noted that Harkins ordered county officials to reduce the jail population to 215 prisoners. The jail was built to house 162 inmates, and its current daily average is 279.
But that last number is a tad misleading.
Wilhelm said that even on those occasions when the jail’s population swells to 290, about 40 of those inmates are actually housed in Sampson County’s jail, where Rowan is renting cells.
Also within a year, construction crews will finish an an additional section of the jail that will house 48 more inmates.
If you subtract the 40 inmates already housed in Sampson County, as well as the 48 who will be housed in the new pod, the detention center’s population is already reduced to 202, Wilhelm said.
That’s easily within the 215 figure that Harkins recommended.
Wilhelm noted that Harkins didn’t order the county to solve the overcrowding problem within 30 days, only that a plan be presented.
“You’ve got more than 30 days,” Wilhelm said. “We just need a plan.”
Committee members went over five recommendations from Harkins that he said might improve conditions in the jail. They include:
– Transfering inmates to other counties.
– Using electronic house arrest and day reporting centers.
– Accelerating court dockets to clear out inmates with less serious charges who might plead guilty.
– Moving inmates sentenced to 30 or more days to the state prison system instead of keeping them in the county jail.
– Finding alternatives to jail for people who fail to pay court-ordered child support.
Committee members agreed the county already is addressing each of those recommendations, usually exceptionally well.
“Everything he suggested is stuff we’re already doing,” Wilhelm said.
For instance, Wilhelm said Rowan County is paying other counties $50 per inmate per day to keep Rowan prisoners. One of his staffers said the sheriff’s employees have driven more than 120,000 miles last year taking inmates to and from other jails.
Likewise, Wilhelm said Rowan County has one of the most advanced pre-trial release programs in the state.
“I challenge Mr. Harkins to find any county in the state with as many out on pre-trial release as we’ve got,” Wilhelm said.
He noted the county keeps an average of about 40 inmates on pre-trial release.
Committee members asked District Attorney Kenerly if there was anything he could do to reduce the detention center’s population.
“Short of us giving away more than, frankly, I’m willing to give away as the district attorney, I’m not sure there’s much we can do,” Kenerly replied.
Sides said commissioners plan to address a long-term solution to the overcrowded jail by eventually budgeting money for a new detention center.
He said he did an Internet search of jail overcrowding and found numerous sites reporting situations similar to Rowan or worse.
“The ones that come in and threaten us are facing the same problems we’re facing,” Sides said, noting that state’s prison system is terribly overcrowded.
“They can’t get prisons built fast enough,” Sides said.
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or shuffman@salisburypost.com.