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Three lawsuits, a $1.5 million repair the latest in jail woes

Three lawsuits filed against the county have opened up more discussion about the Beaufort County jail.

According to Beaufort County Manager Brian Alligood, all three lawsuits center around a state requirement that any inmate, after the 14th day of confinement, must have the opportunity for physical exercise for an hour a day, at least three days a week. No such opportunity exists in the Beaufort County Detention Center, a facility built in 1967 in the basement of the Beaufort County Courthouse.

“Inmates currently have no access to indoor or outdoor recreation space, and the dayroom space is not sufficiently sized to accommodate meaningful physical exercise,” according to a May 2016 Jail and Justice System Assessment by the National Institute of Corrections.

The quote was included in a report recently distributed to county commissioners by Lt. Kathryn Bryan, the jail’s administrator, along with a description of the jail’s other deficiencies. The report came at the request of Board of Commissioners Chairman Jerry Evans, who was elected to the office after an attempt to build a new public safety facility was derailed by a change in board makeup during the 2014 election.

According to Bryan’s report, the jail’s issues aren’t limited to exercise for inmates, but span a range of issues, from ADA compliance to a limited ability to segregate inmates.

“The detention center is currently unable to classify much further than between males and females. Ideally, we would seek to further classify inmates into smaller groups to maintain security; reduce the possibility of fights, sexual assaults, predation and other criminal activity; minimize medical contagions, contend with the mentally ill; and prevent suicides,” Bryan wrote.

The lack of space to do so comes at a cost of between $40 and $86 per day, depending on the facility, for inmates that must be housed elsewhere for a variety of reasons: any inmate in a wheelchair or using a walker in the non-ADA compliant jail; inmates with infectious diseases; suicide risks; violent inmates — there’s only two single cells for individual inmates; those with mental illness and any other vulnerable inmates.

The rising costs of the jail maintenance come as no surprise. In 2013, the detention center was evacuated for 95 days after a fire, which came with a $300,000 price tag. A sprinkler system budget request for $125,000 was turned down by the board after the fire. As the jail is in the basement of the courthouse, inmates must be evacuated during major weather events: inmates transported to six facilities for nine days surrounding Hurricane Matthew in 2016 cost the county $50,000; inmates housed elsewhere for 11 days over Hurricane Florence last year cost $55,000.

The 2019-20 recommended county budget now calls for a substantial withdrawal from the general fund to pay for a replacement of the jail’s security doors. In January, a system-wide failure of door hardware, computer hardware and software and the electrical system — all controlling the system of locking doors — resulted in the closing of three housing units.

“The cost to date for housing and transportation due to inoperable doors for the last two months is approximately $62,000,” Bryan’s report states.

The budget this year calls for a $1.5 million appropriation from the general fund that would pay for the fix, in addition to the housing and transport of all inmates.

“It’s paying for the prisoners to be out because we’re anticipating about a six-month period in which that jail will be empty,” Alligood said.

While some commissioners have advocated for the expansion of the pre-trial release program in order to keep inmates to a minimum in the county facility or in other facilities, there are some roadblocks: the PTR is a voluntary program; out-of-state residents, fugitives, habitual felons and those charged with murder, rape, arson, kidnapping, armed robbery, sex offenses, drug trafficking and failure to appear in court are not eligible; the charging office, the District Attorney and Judge must give approval; and a lack of staff to oversee the program. Currently, the sheriff’s office has a total of 20 ankle bracelets, but only 13 eligible inmates on PTR, and approximately 50% of the inmates enrolled in Beaufort County’s program are sent back to the jail because of non-compliance with PTR rules, the report states.

While Alligood said the first of the lawsuits was dismissed and the other two have been handed over the county’s insurance company, which will retain counsel if one or both proceed in the court system, their existence is cause for concern, according to Bryan, who also stated another lawsuit is in the preliminary stages of filing.

“I think anytime we are sued is a concern. We want to look at it and make sure that it’s defended properly,” Alligood said. “I think the board has been clear about making sure the county is represented well when it comes to lawsuits against the county.”