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County considers jail fixes

After rebuke, commissioners extend olive branch to sheriff

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Nash County Detention Officer D. Whitaker locks up the detention center's westside cells in August. The oldest part of the jail, built in the 1970s, contains open-bar cell blocks.
Nash County Detention Officer D. Whitaker locks up the detention center's westside cells in August. The oldest part of the jail, built in the 1970s, contains open-bar cell blocks.
Lindell J. Kay | Enterprise file photo
Posted

NASHVILLE — Significant progress appears to have been made in correcting deficiencies at the Nash County Detention Center, based on lengthy reports Monday morning to county commissioners, but there was more tension than harmony between county officials and the sheriff and his supporters over the jail’s future.

The N.C. Division of Health Service Regulation last month ordered Sheriff Keith Stone to “depopulate” the aging county jail from 219 inmates to only 56 after a biannual inspection of the facility on Dec. 10 uncovered a long list of health and safety violations attributed both to facility maintenance and jail operation.

The sheriff transferred most of the prisoners to other county jails as far away as Bertie County, at a cost of $11,000 a day, and the state gave the county only days to fix the most immediate problems and 30 to 60 days to fix the rest.

On Dec. 23, embarrassed commissioners vowed to fix all the deficiencies but blamed the inspection failure on a lack of “attention to detail.” In response, the board imposed restrictions on sheriff’s department spending, said it would ask the state for monthly inspections and asked the county’s facility director and the sheriff to give monthly updates on their progress.

For the long term, commissioners hired a consulting firm, the Mosley Group, to study the jail’s needs and make recommendations on how to proceed in February. The Mosley Group is the same firm that handled the new courthouse construction.

At the same time, commissioners also issued a rare public rebuke of the sheriff, who’s been arguing in the press and on social media for months that the county needs a new and much larger county jail that could pay for itself by filling any surplus beds with federal inmates. Board Chairman Robbie Davis said flatly the county will not build a new jail and has no interest in housing outside prisoners — and he appealed to the sheriff to stop complaining to the press.

Monday’s regular meeting of the county commissioners was their first opportunity to be briefed on the jail’s progress. And almost immediately, the board was put on the defensive.

Six supporters of the sheriff spoke during the public comments section, accusing commissioners of “punishing” Stone for advocating for a better jail and blaming them for its deficiencies. Dozens of the sheriff’s supporters and employees filled the audience, cheering every criticism and occasionally heckling the commissioners.

Jonathan Boone, the county engineer and its utilities and facilities director, presented a 28-page report with pictures of progress. He gave a lengthy overview of capital projects at the jail and then went through compliance issues line by line.

“It was a very thorough inspection,” he said of the December visit. “They went through the jail from soup to nuts.” He said 15 items were identified for immediate action.

He said the fire panel and ventilation fans are working, described upgrades to the doors and fencing, showed pictures of cleaning and painting underway and said work on the plumbing was continuing.

“This is not a hospitable environment,” he said. “I’ve never met an inmate who wants to be there. There are ongoing issues with plumbing in a jail. Flooding in a dorm is also an ongoing issue.”

He said walk-throughs will be another effort to identify and flag issues for repairs and said he’s working on “a more structured schedule for preventive maintenance. We need to make sure our staff understands the systems we have and how they work.”

Because of turnover, he said, “there’s been some institutional knowledge that has been lost.”

Boone said he’s now “in a holding pattern while architects make recommendations,” but reported that the county has already spent or committed $347,848.87 on detention center improvements. Plumbing improvements to the north/south block has cost $112,000.

Many of the deficiencies cited, Boone said, are operational issues, including custodial issues and all locks and security features, under the sheriff’s direct control. But he reported that during 2019, the county received 526 work orders for the detention center. Of those, he said, 482 have been closed or the work has been completed. Of the 44 remaining active orders, 14 are in progress, six are on hold waiting for parts, 12 are on hold pending the result of the Mosley report and 12 are miscellaneous issues between operations and maintenance that need to be worked out.

“Most of us are waiting for the Mosley report because a lot of answers will be in that report,” said Commissioner Mary Wells.

“Until we get facts and figures to tell us what to do, we can’t say what we’re going to do,” said Commissioner Dan Cone. “We know there are problems and we know we are pledging to fix them. Government takes awhile, but when we get the facts and figures we are committed to move ahead with what they have got to do.”

When it was the sheriff’s turn to present a report, as commissioners had asked, he turned the floor over to Allen Wilson, a deputy assigned to special operations. Wilson gave a lengthy PowerPoint presentation punctuated by pictures of depressing cell blocks, dirty cells, neglect and decay. He said he’d been tasked with a thorough inspection of the jail and asked to give his observations.

“I was appalled,” he said, noting that other jails in the area didn’t have nearly the problems Nash County is experiencing.

“The inmates deserve better than what we have. The officers deserve a better work environment than what they have,” he said. “There are things we can do to make it better. We can’t keep operating the way we are. It’s extremely dangerous.”

While the sheriff’s office overall is fully staffed with a waiting list, the detention center’s 52 positions now include 11 vacancies. He said in the past 14 months, the detention center has hired 24 people but 19 resigned, with work environment cited as the most common reason. Since last July, he said, there have been 28 assaults by inmates against inmates and 37 assaults by inmates against officers.

“It’s unreal,” he said. “They (the new hires) quickly decide there are other places they can work for this money somewhere else.”

The oldest part of the jail, built in the 1970s and in poor condition, is open-bar cell blocks inmates can reach through. The other dorms, built in the 1990s, are an open design with 30-40 people together in one space. The jail has only 18 cells that can be used for segregation.

He said jails need to classify inmates from the nonviolent to most violent, but the open design makes classification “almost impossible.” He said the inmate population is more violent than in previous generations and gangs are more prevalent.

“It’s our job to look over those who are in our care,” he said. “We are responsible to get them quality service and we cannot do that with the design we have. This is not 10-12 years ago. This is today and what we face.”

Despite calling the conditions in the center “a third-world country,” in need of major repairs, Wilson reported at the end of his presentation, “All issues with operations as indicated in the Dec. 18 depopulation report have been corrected.”

He did not elaborate but said the department was waiting on facility corrections and approval of the state to bring the inmates back.

Wilson said the detention center staff “will conduct monthly walk-throughs and correct the things we can correct and follow up on the things that need follow-up.”

Commissioners said they were disappointed with the presentation’s lack of detail.

“I was expecting you to talk about management,” said Commissioner Fred Belfield, “but three fourths of your report was about the detention center and we already had that.”

“I want a safe jail and I want safe conditions for people in the jail,” said Commissioner Wayne Outlaw. “I’m disappointed in what I’ve seen so far today. We have heard a very detailed specific facility report, but you have not made one mention of the operational issues in that report. You’ve got facility issues. You’ve got operational issues. If it’s all done, then why don’t we get the state back in here this week and sign off this week that we’re done?”

He echoed the other commissioners when he said, “We cannot solve your segregation solution issues in the next few months. The report we get in February will give us a path we can follow. You’re putting up a false narrative to the people and that’s just not right. We can work together and maybe we’ll get a new jail, but we can’t do it until we see the Mosley report.”

Outlaw sharply criticized social media for spreading inaccuracies about the jail situation and about other commissioners. He also said he was deeply offended when speakers attacked previous sheriffs who were doing the best they could with what they had or the commissioners.

“I will not be intimidated or coerced into doing something I don’t think is in the best interest of Nash County,” he said. “Stop demeaning people. Be respectful of other people. If we do that, we will make a lot of progress in a short time.”

“We’re just not that far apart,” said board Chairman Robbie Davis. “If we work together, we can certainly get part of it back in here. There’s no intention whatsoever to keep the sheriff’s department from doing anything. The board knows very well all the good the sheriff has done for the county. I don’t know where we’ve gotten off track. We just need to grow up.”

Davis looked up and spoke directly to the sheriff, who had been in the back of the room.

“We’re ready to work with you. I’m just telling you this board is ready to work with you, sir.”

“All I’ve asked this whole time is for you to be open-minded,” Stone responded. “We’re going to work in the right direction. As far as bringing the inmates back, I’m not holding them up. It would be a whole lot easier on me. There’s a lot that needs to be done, but I’m here to correct those things.”

“We’ve got work to do,” agreed Davis. “There’s plenty for all of us to do.”

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