Old wiring causes jail evacuation

Published 10:06 pm Friday, June 7, 2013

At 11:05 p.m. Thursday night, the Beaufort County Detention Center was plunged into darkness as 40-year-old wiring failed in the Courthouse.

Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputies and detention officers, with the assistance of Department of Corrections officials, were forced to evacuate 72 inmates.

“It wasn’t a function of the weather, it was just the wiring in the Courthouse and we had no choice but to evacuate it,” said Sheriff Alan Jordan.

The jail is located in the basement of the Beaufort County Courthouse and, according to a continuing cycle of Beaufort County Grand Juries, has been in dire need of replacement for at least two decades. The Courthouse’s wiring issue is the latest in a long list that could potentially put the safety of inmates, and detention officers, at risk, according to Jordan.

“The jail was in complete and total darkness,” said Maj. Kenneth Watson, spokesman for the sheriff’s office. “The backup generator is connected to the whole Courthouse but because the problem didn’t affect the whole Courthouse, it didn’t kick in.”

Watson said detention officers and responding patrol deputies quickly notified jail administrator Capt. Katrena Ross, Chief Deputy Kit Campbell, the county maintenance department, Washington Utilities and called in additional personnel to help with security.

According to Lt. Doug Bissette, Washington Fire-Rescue-EMS was initially called in by police because of the lock situation in the jail — it was thought because of electronic doors combined with very old manual locks and keys, that they would need to cut through metal doors to get the inmates out of the cells. Instead, the fire department’s rescue truck light tower was used to illuminate working electricians and the exterior door of the jail, while their ventilation fans circulated air in the increasingly hot space, Bissette said.

“There were 72 people plus personnel in the basement of the Courthouse with no HVAC,” Watson said. He said the inmates “were not happy with the temperature rise, but then, neither were we.”

Deputies were posted in the open doorways while extension cords were strung down the exterior of the Courthouse to help light the way for the inmates’ evacuation.

“Of course, all this was going on in the middle of a tropical storm, dumping a lot of rain on us and we had extension cords running from the second floor of the courthouse,” Watson said. “It was a pretty significant incident, simply because of the lives that we’re responsible for in the detention center — it posed a significant risk to the county from a liability perspective.”

At 3 a.m., a van of juveniles and female prisoners left for the Pitt County Detention Center. Later, a Department of Corrections bus left to transport inmates to a DOC facility in Windsor. The bus had barely pulled out of the parking lot when power was restored, according to Jordan. By 9 a.m. Friday, all inmates had been returned to the jail.

The jail was evacuated because of flooding concerns during Hurricane Irene nearly two years ago, but Jordan said he does not recall a total power failure ever happening. But to him, Thursday night’s debacle only emphasizes the need for Beaufort County Commissioners to get the jail-building process moving.

“Whether we have one person in there or 100, that jail is just substandard,” Jordan said. “Who has to get hurt? How badly does the county have to pay before we do something?”

Jordan said that this fix won’t fix the bigger problem of the jail, which he said is an old, worn out facility that was poorly designed when it was first built.

“I truly cringe at the thought of what my folks had to do and what could’ve happened … I’ll be honest with you. It makes me very angry. We shouldn’t be facing this situation. The detention officers, the inmates, the public of Beaufort County should not be exposed to this type of danger and liability, so yeah, it upsets me.”