State threatens to close jail if fire-safety hazard not addressed

Published 7:55 pm Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The county has been put on notice that if a code violation in the Beaufort County Detention Center is not corrected, the jail could be shut down.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services letter informs Sheriff Ernie Coleman that four “Plan of Correction” letters sent after jail inspections on Oct. 20, 2015, Dec. 30, 2015, April 13, 2016 and Sept. 28, 2016, had been rescinded because the county has yet to give a date by which a fire hazard will be fixed and, 15 years ago, didn’t submit plans to the state before going through with construction that ultimately created the fire hazard.

According to the letter dated March 22, plans to fix the jail must be submitted by June 27, else the state could close the facility located in the basement of the Beaufort County Courthouse in Washington.

But to correct the problem, the county would have to return to construction in keeping with the original structure and that requirement is where it gets complicated, Beaufort County Manager Brian Alligood explained to the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners during the board’s April meeting.

The courthouse was built in 1969, but in 1987, the jail facility expanded, essentially doubling in size. It was around 2000 that inmates realized they could crawl up into the ceiling and started making afterhours visits to the nurse’s office to steal medicines. When a couple of inmates actually escaped using this method, it was clear something had to be done, Alligood said. The fire-rated gypsum board in the ceiling — the lower membrane of a fire-rated floor ceiling assembly — was removed and a steel plates installed in the ceiling to prevent more escapes.

It is the removal of the gypsum board that DHHS inspectors noticed in December 2014 and determined that “this life safety code deficiency at your jail creates a condition that jeopardizes the safety of staff and inmates.”

“They believe it is not to code, and the steel plates don’t meet the same fire codes as the original gypsum board that was up there,” Alligood said.

As the county was ordered to fix the safety violation according to the original plans, Alligood said he hunted them down and found that the original plans did not include fire-rated gypsum board in the ceiling at all — it was added later. Therefore, it is impossible to correct the fire hazard without violating the order to correct it using the original plans, he said.

“We’re really kind of at a loss to understand exactly what it is that we haven’t done right,” Alligood said. “Hopefully, this is a misunderstanding in old paper work. We just need to make it right.”

Wednesday, Alligood said he has enlisted the help of Errol Warren, the architect who designed the expansion in 1987, to help solve the problem so the jail will not face closure.

“He is getting copies of plans to us as well as copies of the state approval letters for that project,” Alligood said. “He has agreed to help us figure out and address the issue put forth by the state.”