Top 10 No. 3 Electrical issues result in jail evacuation

Published 5:11 pm Saturday, December 28, 2013

Two power outages leading the evacuation of the Beaufort County Detention Center and subsequent repairs is No. 3 on the Washington Daily News’ list of top 10 stories of 2013.

Electrical issues, traced to a faulty dryer, resulted in the jail being evacuated in early June following two power outages within three days of each other. Inmates were transferred to other correctional facilities in the area. Those transfers and repairs to the jail and Beaufort County Courthouse complex resulted in the county facing unexpected expenses.

The nearly $600,000 associated with the jail evacuation and repairs includes nearly $360,000 for housing Beaufort County inmates in other jails and correctional facilities. Maintenance costs, so far, come to nearly $145,000. Overtime costs associated with jailers and other Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office personnel used to transport inmates to and from those other jails and correctional facilities and guard those inmates at those facilities came to nearly $64,000 during the past three months.

The jail reopened Sept. 13 and began housing inmates again. Along with issuing an order reopening the jail, Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons Jr. also ordered, “That the Board of Commissioners shall continue to plan and design a county jail that meets the minimum standards in the State of North Carolina. That such planning and construction shall proceed in as timely a manner as possible given the time restraints of architectural service, financing, and construction times.”

Sermons further required the Board of Commissioners to submit a written progress report on the new jail before each administrative session of Beaufort County Criminal Superior Court. That order included a list of those dates.

Some commissioners, especially Commissioner Hood Richardson, took exception to Sermons’ order regarding the building of a new jail.

Richardson said the county is in compliance with state laws regarding jails.

“This is a spurious order from the standpoint of the way it’s presented, and I call upon Judge Sermons to give us finding of fact for statements that he has made in this particular order — because he can’t,” Richardson said.

Richardson also said he has concerns with reports being made to the court when those reports had not come before the commissioners for their perusal and permission to be sent to the court.

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 described 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 continued.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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