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Steel mesh goes up in jail

The final installation of steel mesh providing a necessary barrier between guards and the guarded went in Friday at the Beaufort County Detention Center.
The steel mesh replaces Lexan glass ordered removed by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services in March. State jail inspectors cited the detention center, located in the basement of the county courthouse, because the Lexan panels failed to meet state fire standards.
Officials at the state level worked with the county to establish a workable timeline in which the materials swap could be made. According to Chief Deputy Kit Campbell, the total cost to the county for the switch was a little over $20,000 for materials and labor
The work taking down the Lexan glass began in mid-June; the job of putting up the steel mesh began in July, according to Capt. Catrena Ross, the jail administrator. With a detention center carrying more inmates than the jail was built to hold, organizing where inmates would be held while the work would be done took even more work, said Ross.
“I had to move inmates from block to block,” Ross explained. “We’d clean out the entire cellblock and take them over to the day area of another block.”
For example, inmates in an eight-man block would be confined to their cell bunks while the day area outside their cells was occupied by as many as 20 prisoners displaced while the Lexan came down and steel mesh went up.
“They stayed there from 7 a.m. until (the workers) were done — sometimes 5 p.m., sometimes 6,” Ross said.
The juggling of inmates from cellblock to cellblock lasted two and a half weeks while the mesh was installed. In the county jail, however, juggling inmates is a daily occurrence, according to Ross. The jail, built for an 85-inmate capacity, had 112 inmates in residence during Superior Court in July. Thursday, that number had receded to 91.
A constant concern of jail officials, overcrowding is one of the many reasons why a committee was convened in April to explore Beaufort County’s options to build a new jail. Recently, three committee members — Ross, Judge Michael Paul and County Commissioner Al Klemm — headed west to tour Guilford County Jail, a $100 million, hi-rise detention center that opened in June. Next on the jail committee agenda are tours of the Sampson and Harnett county jails.
For Ross and her detention officers, the state order to take down the Lexan glass was a step back in terms of safety.
“It’s working out okay,” said Ross. “We have some issues.”
Issues like coverage on their rounds decreasing by 25 percent, she said. Whereas the plastic prevented all solids and liquids thrown by inmates from hitting corrections officers, liquids are able to penetrate the perforated metal sheets. Floor to ceiling Lexan glass prevented inmates from creating larger openings, but inmates can now bend the bottom edges of the mesh, creating more space. While Ross sees it as a future problem, the jail administrator is taking the change in stride.
“It is what it is. We’re making do,” she said. “We’re just hoping for a new facility.”