Article published February 24, 1997
The jailhouse that's a palaceBy CHASE SQUIRES
Some might take Spartanburg County's jail for granted. It's out of sight, and for most of the law-abiding it's out of mind.
But in criminal justice circles, the 2-year-old detention center on California Avenue has become a mustsee attraction.
A federal agency routinely recommends that officials from cities considering building new jails visit the $14 million, 436-bed facility. Salt Lake City is copying the jail's sunken booking area and independent maintenance access for its 4,000-bed jail. Tulsa, Okla., is copying the windowless design, complete with skylights for its $63 million jail. An official in Albuquerque, N.M., said he has seen hospitals that weren't as clean as Spartanburg County's jail.
"Sometimes, in the jail industry, people don't want to change," said Chief Deputy Dan Ipson, the head of the Salt Lake County jail development team. "You have to go out and see where others have broken away, see what they've done."
Spartanburg County Warden Larry Powers said the county didn't set out to establish a standard, but he and others did have a clear idea of what they wanted and they refused to accept less.
Powers said one incident in particular illustrates the work the county had to do to make designers change.
"We were in Dallas, and I kept telling (the architects) what I wanted, and they kept saying it couldn't be done," Powers said. "We just left. We got on the plane and left. I didn't know if I was going to be in trouble for it, but they just weren't listening."
The move got the architects' attention, who gave Powers what he was looking for.
Some of the new concepts used in the jail include:
Lt. Mark Williamson of Tulsa's police department said he and fellow officers toured six jails, including facilities in Tampa, Fla., and Nashville, Tenn., before breaking ground on a 1,440-bed jail in the city's downtown.
"I think we took a good bit of Spartanburg back with us," he said. The jail is being built much like Spartanburg County's, a single story facility with skylights instead of windows.
Ipson said designers of his county's jail, which will cost more than $120 million by the time it's finished in 1999, were reluctant to provide the outside access to utilities.
"I think Larry (Powers) and I kind of had the same ideas on some things," Ipson said. "You have to show people it can be done."
The National Institute of Corrections, a federal agency, funds field trips to selected jails for officials considering building new detention centers.
"Our job isn't to tell people what to do, but we try to show them what other people are doing," said Jim Berthold, a technical expert at the institute. "That's why we send people to Spartanburg. We want them to see what they've done right."
Powers said he's especially happy with the recessed areas used for holding incoming prisoners while they are processed. In the old jail, prisoners were packed into locked cells while they waited to be fingerprinted and booked.
"I thought there just had to be a better way," he said.
Architect Bob Price, with the Dallas firm of Henningson Durham & Richardson, said he tried to combine the elements Spartanburg wanted with what was possible to build.
The booking area - dubbed the "booking pit" - was the result. Incoming inmates are allowed to watch television in comfortable chairs in a clean, carpeted area. As long as they behave, they are allowed to stay in the recessed areas without being locked in a cell. "
For too long, people have forgotten that under our criminal justice system, you're innocent until you're convicted," Price said. "The way we have it, if you want to behave like a human being, we'll treat you like one."
The jail does have locking cells for those who cannot behave.
Powers said the jail isn't perfect, and he could use more space, but with 42 acres surrounding the facility and water and sewer lines built to accommodate expansion, an addition will probably follow someday.
"When we get these other people coming through, all from much larger areas, and they're looking at what we did, we love it," Powers said. "I think it shows that some of the things we came up with weren't so impossible after all."