Jail plagued by major electrical problems

Published 9:44 pm Saturday, June 22, 2013

A wiring problem in a commercial dryer may have caused the evacuation and closure of the Beaufort County Detention Center earlier this month, but according to engineers, the discovery merely scratched the surface of underlying, and potentially dangerous, electrical problems in the jail.

The jail, located in the basement of the Beaufort County Courthouse, suffered back to back power outages on June 6 and June 8, prompting Sheriff Alan Jordan to abandon the facility until the problems are corrected. Beaufort County inmates are spread across three counties — Bertie, Lenoir and Pamlico — at a cost of roughly $55 per inmate, per day, a number that doesn’t factor in extra manpower and transportation costs to and from court.

In a letter to County Maintenance Director Christina Smith, D. Wilson Pou, professional engineer with the Greenville firm of Engineering Source, after recommending the dryer be disconnected from a panel only intended for loads critical to the jail’s operation, wrote, “There is, however, a bigger issue for Beaufort County. The current electrical power configuration does not meet building code requirements for emergency back-up or life safety.”

Pou goes on to describe a situation, as happened with both outages, in which no emergency system operates emergency lights, exit lights, the fire alarm or power operated locks and doors if there is a problem in the actual wiring of the courthouse. North Carolina building code requires not only those fail-safes to be in place, but operate on a transfer switch—the mechanism switching load to a back-up generator—that serves only those systems. With the current configuration, a 355KW generator provides power to the entire Courthouse when the City of Washington’s utility service is interrupted, with no jail emergency back-up in place for internal problems.

“I strongly recommend that you get this resolved as soon as possible as it puts the county and the law enforcement personnel in a dangerous and I think liable position if anyone were to be injured due to a power loss … I believe that this needs to be corrected before inmates are returned to the facility,” Pou’s letter continues.

According to Chief Deputy Kit Campbell, though it wasn’t realized, the jail has been operating outside of building code for a year and a half, since the 355KW generator was installed. The original back-up generator, at 50KW, powered only the jail and a small panel that had emergency lights, exit lights and the fire alarm system.

But the inoperable generator sent up red-flags for another engineer, this one Andy Hartsfield, of Watson Electrical Construction Co. in Greenville.

In a letter to the maintenance director, Hartsfield wrote “The supplemental generator and transfer switch is also in poor condition. The generator is showing signs of leakage and apparently not operating … This generator is a fire hazard and should be removed from the room it is currently in.”

The room to which Hartsfield refers is in the basement of the courthouse, but not in the jail proper.

Hartsfield also expressed concern about the amount of time, and the extra effort, it took to reset the main breaker after the first outage on June 6: “Not only was it time consuming and left the power off for some time but also subjected (the electrician) to a substantially dangerous circumstance. I would deem the switchgear unreliable and cause for great concern. It is in the best interest of all parties to replace the switchgear with a more modern type.”

“It confirms that my decision to evacuate the inmates was right,” said Jordan. “The cost is substantial and that’s a concern of ours. My regret is that we have to be spending this money to do these transports when it could be money put to a new jail.”

Jordan said that while the jail might barely squeak past its inspections, jail inspectors are not looking for issues like wiring.

“They look at obvious health and safety things. Jail inspectors don’t examine the vital infrastructure of the jail, “ Jordan said. “Saying the dryer is the problem is just an oversimplification of the issue. It’s the electrical system of the jail and that’s just indicative — it’s symptomatic of other problems. The dryer has uncovered even greater faults within the electrical system. When you have an engineer saying that this is dangerous … well, I don’t know in its current configuration that it can be made much better.”

Though Jordan said county maintenance personnel have worked diligently to resolve the situation, it is unclear whether any of the electrical problems pointed out by Hartsfield and Pou have been fixed.

County Manager Randell Woodruff could not be reached for comment. Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons, who ordered the relocation of Beaufort County’s 67 inmates, specifying that he would also determine when they could return, declined to comment on the issue.