Detention center overcrowded, officers desperate for new facility
MONROE – As the number of arrests in Union County continues to grow, the county jail seems to be shrinking.
Over the last several years, overcrowding at the 3344 Presson Road jail has become a serious problem. Inmates are sleeping on the floor because there aren’t enough beds. Medical screenings are being done in a hallway. State regulations aren’t being met. And officers are getting desperate.
In a special meeting with the Union County Board of Commissioners Monday, April 2, Sheriff Eddie Cathey and Capt. Ronnie Whitaker gave a detailed presentation outlining the department’s needs and the benefits for expanding the jail.
Since the jail opened in 1994, the average daily population of inmates increased from 128 to 241. But the current facility only has 192 beds for male inmates and 22 beds in one dorm for female inmates. The daily average of male inmates for the first three months of 2012 was 226, and the average number of female inmates for January was 27.
Housing regulations for North Carolina jails require a minimum of 50 square feet for one inmate and another 35 square feet for each additional inmate. However, the average cell in Union County is 98 square feet – 22 square feet below the minimum standard for three inmates.
In 2011, an average of 40 prisoners slept on the floor each month. On March 22 of this year, an inmate submitted a written grievance claiming the conditions were a violation of his Constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment and his right to due process.
“I’ve been incarcerated at Union County jail for eight months and (at) times slept on the floor with a mattress with two other prisoners in a cell,” the inmate said in his grievance. “No pre-trial detainee (should) be sleeping on the floor of a cell with two other people in a room.”
Conditions are especially bad for female inmates. Because the county only has one dorm for females, law enforcement officials can’t separate the inmates according to their classifications of minimum, medium or maximum security prisoners.
Juvenile female inmates can’t be housed separately from those age 18 and older. Although separating juvenile inmates is only required for males, officers anticipate that will change and the current facility would have no way to meet such a regulation.
“About two years ago, the state started talking about having to keep separate 16- to 17-year-old females like we do the male inmates,” Whitaker said during the presentation. “It has not passed yet, but the jail inspector was at the jail last week, actually, and discussed that, and he said (there is going to come a time) where we’re going to have to separate those 16- to 17-year-old females from the adults.”
But the problem is not limited to the holding facilities. The inmate receiving hallway serves as a place for makeshift workstations, a DWI processing area and a no-privacy medical screening zone, which is a violation of state medical laws. Temporary medical housing, which includes four cells for female inmates and 12 for males, is overcrowded, with an average of 45 prisoners being escorted daily to the medical unit for blood pressure checks, blood sugar counts, sick calls, screenings and treatments.
Whitaker told the commissioners expanding the jail as soon as possible could “avoid a costly lawsuit that would likely result in the construction of a new facility.” Other benefits of expansion, Whitaker said, include complying with state and federal regulations for inmate housing and providing a safer environment for both officers and inmates.
Using other existing facilities isn’t an option, leaving the construction of a new building as the only choice. If the county chose to proceed with the jail expansion, it would build a new facility on the hill adjacent to the current building. Sheriff Cathey said the new building would house four inmates per cell. He said plans are to build the facility slightly above state and federal requirements to allow some extra room in case regulations change over time.
At this point, the county does not know how much a new facility will cost. “(The specifics) are one of the things that we’ll have to decide as county commissioners move forward,” Cathey said. “Until we get to a certain point, any estimates are iffy.”
In June, the county will make its final $490,000 payment on the jail. Commissioners plan to discuss the issue of a new facility further in a budget work session later this month. But even if commissioners approved the addition to the jail, it will be years before the problems are fixed.
“Even if we broke ground today, it would be three years before it would be finished,” Cathey said. “Whether that’s in this fiscal year or not, I don’t know.”