The Business of Jail

By David Anderson Jr.
Published September 2, 2008

Barely 16 months after the new state-of-the-art detention facility opened, Sampson County’s jail has become a Mecca for inmates from across the state as other counties are struggling to deal with their own overcrowding issues.

Next month, the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office will become the ninth law enforcement agency to start shuttling pre-trial inmates to Clinton, pouring money into Sampson County’s coffers for the privilege.

The deal with Onslow County calls for Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton to guarantee at least 50 beds will be reserved for Onslow’s inmates at any given time, with payment being based on the amount of inmates the county actually takes to the jail. Sampson County charges other counties a daily housing fee of $50 per inmate.

In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, the jail brought in
$1.37 million.

Sheriff Thornton said the cost of housing additional inmates is minimal as the jail’s major expenses — staff and electricity — are relatively constant whether the jail houses one inmate or 300. The expense associated with housing individuals includes the cost of providing three daily meals, $3.60 per inmate, as well as the additional water use associated with drinking, showering and washing clothes.

“The cost to the county taxpayer is nothing,” Sheriff Thornton said.

Space for Onslow’s inmates will only be available once Hoke County retrieves about 40 inmates currently living at the Sampson County Jail. Faced with overcrowding issues of their own, Hoke County has built a new $8.5 million jail that will begin housing inmates in October.

Maj. Kemely Pickett heads up Sampson County’s jail, carrying more than 20 years of prison experience to work with him every day. While he tries to accept as many out-of-county inmates as he can to increase Sampson County’s revenue, Maj. Pickett says the new jail is currently full.

The Sampson County Jail’s six housing units are set up to accommodate a total of 252 inmates, with most cells containing only two beds. Cells in two of the housing units have enough space to comfortably accommodate a third bed, which can increase the jail’s capacity to 300 inmates.

For two hours at a time, inmates in Sampson County’s jail have access to an indoor and outdoor recreation area where they can socialize, smoke a cigarette or make a phone call. The 68,429-square-foot facility houses all of Sampson County’s inmates with more than 100 beds left over.

For two hours at a time, inmates in Sampson County’s jail have access to an indoor and outdoor recreation area where they can socialize, smoke a cigarette or make a phone call. The 68,429-square-foot facility houses all of Sampson County’s inmates with more than 100 beds left over.

Two of the housing units are specifically designated to hold about 80 out-of-county male inmates; female inmates, regardless of where there charges stem from, are all housed in one block. Maj. Pickett said he tries to keep Sampson’s inmates separate from visiting detainees, but occasionally circumstances require them to mix. In order to separate gang members and co-defendants, out-of-county inmates may be housed in one of the spaces designated for Sampson’s prisoners.

The agreement with Onslow to reserve a minimum number of beds is a first for Sampson County. Up until now, other counties desperate for space would simply call Maj. Pickett and see how many inmates he was able to accept that day. If space was available, deputies from that county would bring their inmates to Sampson. If the facility was full, those jailers would have to look elsewhere, or be in violation of occupancy standards set by state agencies.

Sheriff Thornton said Onslow needed the agreement to ensure they would have enough space to maintain safe conditions at their own overcrowded jail.

Maj. Picket said the agreement wouldn’t keep him from filling up available beds, even if Onslow County decides not to house their entire allotment of 50 inmates.

When other counties call looking for space, he will accept their inmates until the jail is at its normal capacity of 252 prisoners. If Onslow then needs to bring additional bodies, the temporary beds can be brought in to increase the jail’s capacity.

“We may run out of beds, but we won’t run out of room,” Maj. Pickett said.

Maj. Picket has tried to avoid filling the jail beyond the normal 252 inmates so far, as the facility is not yet fully staffed. In an effort to save money, county commissioners have required Maj. Pickett to wait until October to hire four additional full-time jailers. A typical day-shift requires 12 jailers to maintain order in the facility.

Plenty Of Space
County governments struggling to house constantly growing inmate populations aren’t the only ones eager to make use of Sampson County’s jail. Sheriff Thornton said visiting inmates have told him they would rather stay in Sampson’s modern facility than return to their counties’ own out-of-date jails.

“We have less trouble with them than our own inmates,” Sheriff Thornton said. “They make our best clientele.”

In Sampson County, inmates are allowed out of their cells and into a cavernous indoor recreation area, furnished with a telephone and picnic tables, for two hours at a time. From this room, inmates have free access to a smaller outdoor recreation area. The space, about 30 feet by 15 feet, is bricked in on all sides but has a chain link ceiling, allowing inmates to get their fill of fresh air and sunlight. There are even designated smoking areas where inmates can puff on cigarettes purchased at the jail’s commissary.

Half of the cells in each housing unit are opened at once. After inmates have had their two-hour allotment, they return to their cells and the other half of the housing unit is released. The cycle continues throughout the day.

Maj. Kemely Pickett shows a visitation room equipped for video conferencing. The rooms allow inmates to talk with family and friends without having to leave their cell blocks.

Maj. Kemely Pickett shows a visitation room equipped for video conferencing. The rooms allow inmates to talk with family and friends without having to leave their cell blocks.

Also in the recreation area is a visitation room equipped with a chair, telephone and video monitor. Whenever visitors come to the jail, they sit at a similar booth in the lobby of the sheriff’s office. Inmates and visitors can see each other and talk through the monitors. This system prohibits jailers from having to escort inmates out of the housing block and risk an escape attempt.

Medical attention is something else inmates are not lacking. The Sampson County Jail keeps a nurse on staff about 35 hours a week. Inmates are charged a $10 co-pay for nonemergency medical and dental visits. If a medical emergency arises, a doctor is on-call 24 hours a day and inmates are not charged for treatment.

Sheriff Thornton and his staff are clearly proud of their facility. The sheriff said the county was fortunate to begin construction when they did. Sampson County’s jail cost more than $11 million to build, but Sheriff Thornton said the cost per square foot, about $137, is nearly a third of what other counties rushing to replace their own aging facilities are paying.

Less than two years since Sampson County opened their new building, Sheriff Thornton says jails being built in other parts of the state are “ranging anywhere from $350 to $400 per square foot.”

Construction costs savings aren’t the only benefit Sampson County has realized by acting early and opening their jail before neighboring counties.

In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, the jail brought in $1.37 million. Almost $130,000 of that revenue came from inmates buying cigarettes, chips and sports bras from the jail’s commissary. The rest came from other counties, the North Carolina Department of Corrections and the federal government in exchange for housing pre-trial inmates, convicted criminals and illegal immigrants that other facilities just don’t have room for.

 

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Text and images copyright 2008 by The Record Publishing Company.
Used with permission.

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