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DHHS threatens shutdown of jail

Sheets of Plexiglas/Lexan, installed on jail cells roughly two years ago, helped reduce assaults on officers working in the facility. The material has been deemed a safety hazard for inmates and detention officers and must be removed as ordered by the Department of Health and Human Services. (WDN File Photo/Vail Stewart Rumley)

The Department of Health and Human Services issued a directive to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office to remove the Plexiglas/Lexan sheets lining the exterior of the cellblocks in the county’s detention center, or risk having the jail shut down.

The protective sheets were installed approximately two years ago as a solution to the ongoing problem of assaults on officers working in the facility and the resultant high turnover in employees. While the material has been deemed a safety hazard for inmates and detention officers, according to Capt. Catrena Ross, administrator of the Beaufort County Detention Center, its removal means a lot of changes for the jail.

“It’s our major protection source right now,” said Ross. “Our officers are secure right now…(without the Lexan) the task of being a detention officer is going to get harder.”

Chief Deputy Kit Campbell read the April 2 directive at the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners’ meeting Monday night, bringing the issue, and by association that of a new jail, to the attention of the commissioners.

The county’s detention center has long been plagued by overcrowding, its cramped space divided by a narrow warren of corridors with little-to-no visibility, in the basement of the county courthouse. There is no room for expansion though projected inmate numbers provided by jail architects indicate expansion is mandatory.

“(The directive) reinforces the need for a new facility,” said Campbell. “If the facility was adequate we wouldn’t have these issues.”

The county commissioners later voted unanimously to fund a study by Mosely Architects, a firm specializing in jail architecture, that will determine the available options for a new Beaufort County Detention Center.

There is no definitive record as to how the Lexan glass was initially approved for installation. According to county authorities, the project consisted of two phases, between which a semiannual state jail inspection revealed no issue with the material’s use. However, after the second phase of installation had been completed, the debate on safety began with the next inspection report.

Dated Sept. 22, 2010, the report reads: “There is concern about the materials that have been mounted over the bars of the old section of the jail. Plexiglas or something that resembles Plexiglas has been installed. This section is requesting that the local fire marshal inspect these materials and provide written approval of these additions to this section” and recommended it be taken down.

In an undated letter to the Beaufort County Maintenence Dept., Fire Marshal Jasper Hardison and Washington’s Chief Building Inspector Alan Pittman found that the product “does not meet code requirements,” and also recommended removal.

While Lexan, a polycarbonate resin thermoplastic, held up from a fire rating perspective, it fell outside acceptable guidelines for nonsprinklered rooms and enclosed spaces according to North Carolina Fire Code — specifically, the smoke development index which indicates how much smoke is generated when a material burns. The higher the number, the more smoke generated. The one-half inch thick Lexan sheeting in this case has a SDI of 620, whereas 450 is the maximum allowable rating.

“We were acting in good faith, thinking that this was an appropriate solution to make the detention center a safer place to work in,” said Chief Deputy Kit Campbell. “There’s no option but to remove it. I wish we could retain it for officer safety…it’s unfortunate that we’re going to have to remove the product that seems to be working really well for us.”

“The stuff has to come down because of the potential for fire,” said Steven Lewis, chief of the Dept. of Health and Human Services, Division of Health Service Regulations, Construction Section.

Lewis acceded that the Beaufort County Detention Center is a unique situation, calling it “an unusual case.” Of the many jails he sees in North Carolina, this particular issue has never come up, regardless of the age of the facility. He explained that the state’s concern is rooted just as much in the toxic chemicals Lexan emits when burned, as it is with excess smoke.

Woodruff, County Attorney Billy Mayo, and Campbell reached out to Lewis in a conference call Tuesday to explore the detention center’s options in light of the DHHS directive.

“(Lewis) is going to assist us as much as he can,” said Woodruff. “He was very understanding and supportive. That’s what you like to find when you engage these folks at the regulatory agencies.”

Lewis prolonged the April 13 removal deadline — Woodruff said they’re now looking at 90 days to remove the material. The section will also send one of its architects to assist with removal and propose replacement options.

Lewis said there are no acceptable alternatives for the Lexan glass among plastics. His suggested replacement, the expanded mesh metal often seen in catwalks and fire escapes, could provide the same level of visibility and the same protection from physical assaults on detention officers. The drawback is that metal mesh would only partially prevent liquids from passing through the barrier and would do nothing to muffle the constant verbal abuse directed at the officers, according to Woodruff.

“(The Lexan) was put in with very good intentions to provide security for the staff and inmates,” Woodruff explained. “We’ll get (the architect) down here and learn from him…then we’ll have a better idea how to proceed. It’s up in the air until we get more knowledge, but hopefully in few months time we’ll have it corrected.”