Panel to consider new county jail

Published 12:44 am Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A view down the hall between cell blocks in the Beaufort County Jail in the basement beneath the county courthouse. Lexan sheets (polycarbonate) line the exterior of the blocks’ walls to minimize the opportunity for assault on detention officers. For a closer look at the Beaufort County jail, read the Sunday, Nov. 27 edition of the WDN. (WDN Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners on Monday authorized the creation of a committee that will consider the construction of a new jail but delayed the committee’s work to give the board the chance to decide what the committee should do.

Serving on the eight-member committee will be Commissioners Hood Richardson, Al Klemm and Chairman Jerry Langley, along with Sheriff Alan Jordan, Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons Jr., District Court Judge Michael Paul, District Attorney Seth Edwards and Capt. Catrena Ross, jail administrator.

The committee is expected to begin its work early next year after county leaders agree on the siting and construction of the new jail and the scope of the committee’s work, County Manager Randell Woodruff said in an interview.

The issues involved in siting and building a new jail were the subject of much debate by county leaders in 2008 and 2009, but the economic downturn and financial difficulties facing the local hospital eclipsed the issue.

A recent tour of the jail by the county’s grand jury and a subsequent report citing the jail’s many deficiencies helped bring the issue back to the forefront of discussion.

The jail, in the basement of the Beaufort County Courthouse, has been described by county leaders in previous news reports as “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 the administrative area for jail employees.

The detention center, originally built to house roughly 35 inmates, regularly holds about 85 inmates, according to previous reports.

While the commissioners generally agree that a new jail should be sited on the north side of the Pamlico River, recent discussions by the panel have shown little agreement on anything else.

The appointment of the committee followed a presentation to the board by Richardson of a proposal to build the new jail on county-owned land behind the Beaufort County Courthouse between Second and Third streets.

Some county leaders have said there is not enough room near the courthouse for a new jail, but Richardson, using a map and several charts, argued it is possible to build a one- or two-story jail in the existing courthouse parking lot.

“All the arguments that you can’t build the jail where the courthouse is won’t fly,” he said.