New jail should be among county priorities

Published 4:16 am Tuesday, February 17, 2009

By Staff
It’s easy enough for most of us to disregard crowded, dangerous jail conditions: We’re not incarcerated, and we have no loved ones who are.
But to disregard conditions at the Beaufort County Detention Center is to invite potential calamity.
The facility, in the basement of the Beaufort County Courthouse, is a maze of narrow, crowded, stifling cell blocks. In the 1980s, prisoners won a lawsuit against the jail because of overcrowding, which forced much of the facility to convert to jail cells. The realignment severely reduced administrative area for jail employees, thus paving the way for a bad situation to become even worse.
Fast forward to today: The detention center, which was originally built to house roughly 35 inmates, currently holds about 85.
The cramped space is dangerous for inmates and guards: Inmates get on each other’s nerves, and because the jail has no outside facilities, they get little exercise and rarely leave their cells. Blowing off steam through exercise or other outside stimulation can help defuse potentially volatile situations perhaps more effectively than any other remedies.
But not here.
And jail employees are caught in the middle — literally. Some cell-block corridors are so narrow that inmates can easily reach out on both sides and grab guards’ arms, necks, hair or clothing.
The lack of space influences other aspects of the jail, too. Staff do more than simply confine prisoners: Among other responsibilities, they facilitate attorney/prisoner meetings and prisoner/family visits, and, until recently, washed prison laundry. That service is now contracted to Halifax County.
Beaufort County Sheriff Alan Jordan never stops lobbying for a new jail, though he realizes the potential expense involved and the seriousness of the current economic downturn. He’s correct to keep lobbying, because he knows what all of us should know: Inmates deserve safe, clean, functional conditions.
And, of course, so do jail personnel.
The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners understands the seriousness of the problem, too. Commissioners have placed a new jail at or near the top of their priorities, but from a public-relations standpoint they have their work cut out for them.
Coupled with the out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude some of us reserve for jail issues is the attitude that prisoners deserve what they get.
Maybe so, but in our opinion they also deserve clean, safe, hygienic conditions.
Jordan knows this better than all of us, and that’s why he’s led the cheers for a new facility.
Complicating the issue, though, is that probably most citizens want county resources dedicated to other priorities before they’re tapped to build a new jail. That’s understandable, and in some cases, justified.
As this issue continues to fester, we urge our county commissioners to find a way to get a new jail facility built. It may not have everything Jordan envisions, but the current facility seems to be on its last legs.