Jail issues persist

Published 1:44 am Sunday, November 27, 2011

Capt. Catrena Ross is the administrator for the jail. (WDN Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-article series on the Beaufort County Detention Center. The second article will be published Tuesday.
It happens every year.
A newly sworn in grand jury descends into the basement of the Beaufort County Courthouse for a guided tour of the Beaufort County Detention Center. Grand jury members speak to the detention officers who work there; they hear from the sheriff and the jail administrator. They submit a written report of the conditions they find — it’s required by law. Though the exact wording and the grand jury foreman’s name on the annual report may change from one year to the next, the grand jury’s final assessment never varies, and it hasn’t for decades: Beaufort County needs a new jail.
Beaufort County got a new jail in 1972. Tucked beneath the newly constructed courthouse on West Second Street in Washington, the Beaufort County jail was on the small side, consisting of 35 beds, but it was adequate to the needs of the community. The new facility had a kitchen to prepare meals for inmates. It had laundry facilities. More importantly, it had space — so much space that the basement also housed the Civil Defense office, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and additional storage rooms.
Over time, the needs of the community began to change. Laws changed, sentencing for crimes changed and the Beaufort County jail had to change, as well. The jail grew, pushing Civil Defense and the sheriff’s office to other locations. Kitchen and laundry facilities made way for more beds and more inmates. Offices and break rooms eventually disappeared. Though the demand for more space continued, ultimately, the Beaufort County jail ran out of room.

Appalling conditions

In 1995, North Carolina’s attorney general handed down an opinion requiring county sheriffs to be “keepers of the jails, ” a condition that prevents North Carolina counties, unlike those of other states, from subcontracting out/privatizing their jails. The burden of running and maintaining a county jail falls on the department of detention under a sheriff’s office. Financially, the burden of operating a jail falls on the county. Psychologically, it falls on Sheriff Alan Jordan, Beaufort County’s “keeper of the jail.”
The first time Jordan heard of the Beaufort County jail was in the early 1970s, when the explosive Joanne Little trial and resulting civil-rights response captured national attention. By the time he joined the sheriff’s office in 1995, the need for a new jail was already an old discussion. Since then, Jordan said he’s made it his mission to bring the issue to the public’s attention.
“In order to plan for the future,” Jordan said, “we’ve got to move the jail from the basement. …We’re in a hole in the ground.”
The basement level of the jail, the “hole in the ground,” is prone to flooding during a hard rain. During the threat of a hurricane, the state Department of Correction picks up all inmates and ferries them by bus to a state detention facility, at a cost to the county of $50 per inmate, per day, until the jail is no longer threatened by flooding, or any damage and cleanup has been resolved.
“We can’t risk anyone’s life,” Jordan said.
The primary concern regarding the jail is safety, for the detention officers, inmates and the public, which is intensified by nearly constant overcrowding. The number of inmates incarcerated in the jail rises and falls daily. It has hit as high as 123 inmates, but that number tends to be lower during holidays, when judges give more lenient sentences. The average inmate population hovers around 90, though the jail contains only 85 beds. Operating at over-capacity translates into a greater burden on the detention officers and a greater risk that someone, officer or inmate, may be injured.
From a legal standpoint, a serious injury or death within the Beaufort County jail could potentially be a violation of due process and an invitation to a lawsuit against the county, Jordan acknowledges.
“Everyone in Beaufort County stands to lose by the liability we create,” said Jordan, which he said has led to county officials being supportive of requests for improvements to the existing facility.
“Every time we’ve brought something to them, they have responded,” Jordan said of the county commissioners. “They’ve listened to us and given us the things that will keep our heads above water.”

Time to act

For Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons Jr., treading water is no longer enough — action needs to be taken immediately.
Sermons is no stranger to the Beaufort County jail. In 1989 and 1990, he defended James Bartlett Upchurch III, one of the men accused of Leith Von Stein’s murder. Sermons described his first meeting with his client.
“I had to remove a garbage can from the room. The room stank of garbage,” Sermons said.
He recalled meeting with clients through the jail bars because there was no other available space. “Even in 1989, it was severely antiquated. Twenty-two years later, we have yet to do anything about the jail,” Sermons said.
A worst-case scenario, said Sermons, would be if a U.S. attorney filed action to close the facility should an injury/death occur or the facilities continue to erode, and further demanded Beaufort County build a new jail immediately. Such an action could mean unforeseen tax increases for county residents if the details for determining the exact how, when, and where a new facility should be built are handed down by a court of law instead of county officials. Sermons wants the county to avoid those measures. He wants to see a bond referendum to build a new county jail on the ballot for the November 2012 election, but in the current economic climate, getting public backing for a new facility could prove difficult, he noted.
“Who wants to spend money for something that only holds pretrial detainees?” Sermons asked rhetorically. “Because we’re dealing with people who are in trouble, the public thinks we don’t have to worry about the welfare of the inmates. But these are people who have largely not been convicted of a crime. They are waiting for their day in court.”
“Whatever it is,” he continued, “it’s the price we pay for public safety. And I don’t know how you put a price on safety.”
The first step toward expediting the process of building a new jail was made two weeks ago, when County Manager Randell Woodruff named Sermons to an eight-member panel that will start the latest conversation about a new jail.
“My quest is that the conversation lead to results and not just more conversation,” Sermons said.
Jordan, District Attorney Seth Edwards, District Court Judge Michael Paul, county commissioners Hood Richardson, Al Klemm and Chairman Jerry Langley and the jail administrator, Capt. Catrena Ross, also were selected for the committee.
According to Edwards, the lack of adequate detention facilities has affected the way the district attorney’s office prosecutes cases.
“Due to overcrowding there’s always a push to expedite cases. There’s a couple of ways of looking at that — we should try to do that for the victim,” Edwards explained. “But there are certain times when I feel like certain people should be in prison, but because of a lack of space, they are not.”