Iredell leaders consider costly options for overcrowded jail

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Posted: Sunday, April 28, 2013 8:21 am

Spending some $25 million tax dollars to build a new facility to house those accused of crimes is not a popular idea, but it is one that Iredell County might have to consider.

The current Iredell County Detention Center is bursting at the seams — sometimes exceeding the capacity of the main facility and the annex on Prison Camp Road by nearly 100 inmates.

Jail Capt. Bert Connelly said he knows building a new facility isn’t a popular idea but it’s not an issue designed to make those in the jail more comfortable. “It’s a safety issue,” he said.

Overcrowding leads to more frustration, which in turn, leads to fights and fights can mean injuries to inmates or staff, Connelly said. And the tax payers have to pick up the tab for those injuries.

Jail, he said, is not a hotel.

“We don’t have TVs. We don’t have games,” he said. “We are providing the bare bones within state standards.”

The ideal solution, Connelly said, would be to add onto the current jail, which would add 384 beds, bringing the total available to 585. 

“We could close the annex and have everything under one roof,” he said.

Those additional beds should also give the jail space for increased population for several years down the road.

But it would come with a hefty price tag — $25 million or so.

Connelly said there are few options. Operating a jail is a necessary evil, he said, and it is one of the state constitutional obligations of the sheriff’s office. Manning the court system is the other.

Iredell not alone 

Other counties with populations similar to Iredell are experiencing overcrowding or at-capacity issues as well.

Based on the 2010 census, Alamance County, with a population of 151,131 is slightly smaller than Iredell, which has a population of 159,437. Jail officials said the population averages 422 with a jail capacity of 476.

That is the only facility in a county with a similar population that comes in under capacity.

Catawba, also slightly smaller than Iredell, averages 265 in its 265-bed capacity facility.

Davidson, with a population of 162,878, averages 298 in its 255-bed jail and, Pitt, with a population of 168,148, averages nearly 500 in a 404-bed facility.

Pitt County Maj. J.E. Phillips said the population varies. 

“In Pitt County, our population increases in the spring and summer, due to weather and activity rise, and in the fall/winter, we decrease somewhat,” he said. 

A variety of factors come into play, he said, such as the efficiency of the court system and programs such as electronic monitoring.

Phillips said Pitt County has set up a Superior Court session for jail cases only and non-support cases are heard inside the detention facility. 

“That helps a great deal,” he said.

He said the sessions are held three days a week and are exclusive of regular court sessions every weekday.

A long-standing issue

Iredell County has been dealing with jail overcrowding for a couple of decades.

The current facility was expanded in 1996 in what was supposed to be a fix to last five years.

A few years ago, the county entered into a contract with the N.C. Department of Correction to utilize the former prison camp site on Prison Camp Road north of Statesville to house women and those inmates between 16 and 18 years old. (Those younger than 16 go to juvenile facilities.)

That addition gave the jail another 76 beds, paired with the 201 in the main facility, for a total capacity of 277.

The five-year fix and the addition of the former prison facility have done little to alleviate the chronic overcrowding in the jail.

In the past few years, Iredell has reached out to other counties to house some inmates. As of last weekend, there were 20 inmates from Iredell housed in the Rowan County Detention Center. Still, Iredell picks up the tab, Connelly said. Iredell pays a daily rate of $40 per inmate. 

In one year, with medical costs, overtime for staff to transport the prisoner to and from court dates, fuel and vehicle wear and tear, the cost is around $18,225 per inmate per year.

Some inmates are transferred to Central Prison for safekeeping. Those are usually inmates who are security risks or who have medical conditions that need constant monitoring. Iredell continues to pay for those inmates, including medical costs, Connelly said. 

Transportation and overtime costs for the extra miles to Raleigh drive that $18,000 figure higher.

Currently there are two inmates in safekeeping. One of those inmates is awaiting trial on a murder charge and he has been in custody for more than five years awaiting trial.

There are three others in custody in the Iredell Detention Center who have been in jail for more than three years awaiting trial and four who have more than two years in custody.

Looking at options

Iredell County Board of Commissioners Chairman Steve Johnson said moving cases through the court system more quickly would help with the problem, but the county is going to have to look at options for adding more beds to the jail.

“I think there are a few things we can do,” he said.

The most expensive, obviously, is building a new jail. “That’s the best long-term solution,” Johnson said.

Commissioner Ken Robertson has proposed using a general obligation bond to pay for the construction. Johnson said his main concern with that possibility is repayment of the money.

“If the economy would pick up, we’d be in good shape to do that,” he said.

Johnson said he would support a new jail at the point when the costs of housing inmates out-of-county make it a necessity. 

“We’re not at that point yet, but we’re close,” he said.

The annex, he said, is not a long-term solution to the overcrowding issue. The main problem with the facility, Johnson said, is the septic system is not adequate.

Another option, Johnson said, is to build a less secure facility to house those accused of misdemeanor-level crimes. 

That fits in with a proposal by Commissioner David Boone to lower bond amounts for low-level offenders, which would, hopefully, enable them to make bail and be released pending trial.

Connelly said releasing the low-level offenders would add costs to the jail budget in another way. Many of those inmates are the ones entrusted with working in the kitchen and laundry room and doing other tasks around the jail. Without that inmate labor, he said, staff would have to perform those jobs and that would likely mean a need to hire more personnel. 

“Inmate labor is keeping our costs down,” he said.

Another facility — away from the main jail — may solve the overcrowding issue, Connelly said, but it will mean additional costs in the form of staffing and transportation.

The detention center is already using a form of a pre-trial release program.

That program fits certain offenders with monitoring bracelets. It was started in December 2009 with those in custody on child support warrants. Since that time, other offenses have been added to the program. A judge makes the decision as to who is eligible for pre-trial release.

That program has not been a total success. 

Since December 2009, 90 inmates have been placed on the pre-trial release monitoring and more than half — 48 — have violated the conditions in some form.

And it’s not without costs as well, Connelly said.

The inmates have to be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

He said he’s heard comments about putting inmates in a tent but that is not possible. 

“You can’t just go out and put them in a pop-up tent. You can’t do that in North Carolina,” he said. 

That violates conditions set forth by the N.C. Jail Standards Commission.

Connelly said the problems with the jail extend beyond having inmates sleeping on the floor and the security risks posed by overcrowding. The kitchen at the current facility is cramped and more room is needed to prepare an average of 250 to 300 meals three times a day every day. And, depending on population, some 100 of those meals have to be taken from the main jail to the annex three times a day, driving up transportation costs.

“The kitchen is outdated. It is too small for what we do,” he said.

The laundry room contains two industrial-size washers and two industrial-size dryers to take care of washing and drying clothing for the jail population.

Jail study nears

An architectural firm is currently putting together a study for the commissioners. 

“It’s a pretty thorough study,” Johnson said. 

The firm is looking at all alternatives — from the addition at the current facility that would add the additional 384 beds to the release program and everything in between.

Johnson said the commissioners hope to get the results of that study by the end of the summer and begin the process of deciding what to do about the jail.