Beaufort County Jailhouse Blues

Published 3:58 am Sunday, February 15, 2009

By Staff
Times tough at local jail
Staff Writer
In the misdemeanor block of the Beaufort County Detention Center one Tuesday afternoon, prisoners are raptly watching daytime television. On the screen, Cristina Perez is presiding over a television court.
Upstairs, in the Beaufort County Courthouse, real judges are presiding over real courtrooms.
But at least until they go before judges, the prisoners are stuck in the cramped basement, watching the syndicated imitation.
TV is one of the few luxuries prisoners have in the jail, which makes it a powerful tool for controlling them, said Beaufort County Sheriff Alan Jordan.
And keeping the prisoners orderly is important, because the jail’s design makes it a relatively unsafe place to work, Jordan said.
In the 1970s, Beaufort County’s jail was in the national news, after a black woman, Joan Little, killed a white jailer she said sexually assaulted her, sparking a civil rights controversy. Little was acquitted of murder charges.
In the 1980s, the jail was the subject of a federal lawsuit for overcrowding.
Now, its eventual demise is a fait acompli, with the Beaufort County Commissioners in agreement that it should be replaced. In the meantime, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, and its unwilling guests, remain stuck with the current facility.
In its current form, the jail — which is takes up the basement of the Beaufort County Court House — holds about 85 people. It was originally built to house roughly 35, but prisoners sued, claiming overcrowding, and won.
As a result, the county converted nearly the whole jail into cells for detaining prisoners.
But the jail staff has to do lots of other things in addition to simply confining prisoners, Jordan said.
Laundry needs to be done. Attorneys need to meet with clients. Family members want to come see prisoners. Space for all those activities is cramped.
Jail officials have started contracting laundry services to Halifax County, rather than providing them in-house.
And when the jail is holding 85 people, officials can’t sort them the ways they would like: by age, propensity to fight, communicable diseases, etc. And sometimes 85 beds isn’t enough.
Prisoner Eugene Glaspie said the jail wasn’t very comfortable. Some of the prisoners are able to put their mattresses and blankets on bunks, but Glaspie wasn’t that lucky.
And how is the floor?
Prisoner Kendrell Blackshear said a new facility would be nice, but he was focused on the here and now.
Because of staffing shortages, female prisoners don’t even sleep in the jail. Instead, the county ships them to Pamlico County, for which Beaufort County pays $50 per prisoner per day. Women attending court or just arrested are held in the jail for short periods of time, but none stays overnight.
On visitation days, prisoners’ friends and family wait outdoors in all types of weather and there’s nowhere for prisoners to exercise beyond whatever they can do in their cells, Jordan said.
Prisoners meet with attorneys in a cramped room with scarcely enough room for a table, two chairs and a garbage can.
But it’s in the cell blocks that the lack of space really makes for problems.
The danger is a routine fact of life at the jail, officials said.
Saunders described the jail as “a time bomb waiting to go off.”
In addition to internal security problems, Jordan said it has had problems with escapes over the years.
The first escape from the jail took place “within a day or two of the jail being built,” he said. When the jail was expanded, some of the renovation was done using ordinary household construction materials, which prisoners easily forced their way through, he said.
In Jordan’s time as sheriff, two men have escaped the jail, though both were recaptured, he said.
Jordan said he’s been working to find temporary solutions to the jail’s defects.
The permanent fix is a big, new jail, he said. One that will have video conferencing for visitation, so prisoners can stay in their cells, modern designs for safety and visibility, space for laundry and lawyers and everything else a jail needs. Until that’s built though, the sheriff is stuck with the jail he has.
Cutline for corresponding photo: With no outside facilities at the Beaufort County Detention Center, inmates rarely leave cramped, humid cells. (WDN Photo/Paul Dunn)