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Jail fix moves forward

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners on Monday approved a plan to replace Plexiglass panels in the county jail with steel mesh panels — a move they hope will avoid sanctions by the state against the county.

“Time is not our friend,” said board Chairman Jerry Langley. “We need to go ahead and do what we need to do.”

The commissioners voted 6-1 to approve a plan — recommended by a Charlotte architectural firm — to replace floor-to-ceiling Lexan, a type of Plexiglass, panels installed about three years ago in the jail with the steel-mesh panels on some jail cells at a cost not to exceed $26,000.

Commissioner Ed Booth cast the sole dissenting vote.

The Plexiglass panels were installed to prevent inmates from grabbing officers as they moved by in the walkway in front of the cells and prevent inmates from throwing food, liquids and other items at the officers walking through the detention center.

“If the Lexan comes down, we have to have something up, or it’s going to be rough in there,” said Capt. Catrena Ross, administrator of the detention center, in meeting with the commissioners.

Recently, state jail inspectors cited the detention center, located in the basement of the county courthouse, because the Plexiglass panels failed to meet state fire standards.

As a result, the state Department of Health and Human Services issued a directive to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office to remove the panels or risk having the jail shut down.

The state had originally set an April 13 deadline for removal of the Plexiglass, but county officials succeeded in having the deadline extended.

Now that the proposed change has been approved, the state-issued deadline to make the materials swap will be determined based on a schedule decided by the county, said DHHS Construction Division director Steve Lewis.

“Once I see (the schedule) in writing, basically that will be the deadline,” explained Lewis.

The plan was the preferred of five options presented to the commissioners by Todd Davis, director of criminal justice and planning for Moseley Architects of Charlotte.

The steel-mesh panels can be “easily retrofitted onto the existing frame after the original panels were removed, and this material is readily available and cost-effective,” according to information Davis presented to the board.

About 1,000 square feet of mesh will be installed where the most-disruptive, maximum-security inmates are held, at an estimated cost of $6,750 for materials. Screens will not be placed in front of jail cells holding less-disruptive inmates, under the plan approved by the board.

Because the screens will make it more difficult for law-enforcement officers to see inside the cells, two additional cameras will be installed in the jail at an estimated cost of $5,000, the commissioners were told.

Assistant County Manager Jim Chrisman told the commissioners the changes could be made at the jail without any additional appropriations in county funds because of savings realized by law-enforcement officers in jail operations this year.

The action authorizing the replacement of the Lexan panels came at the start of the first workshop on the county’s 2012-2013 fiscal-year budget.