Article published April 7, 2008
Spartanburg County jail bursting at the seams
Expansion proposed, but it might not be enough to keep pace with influx of inmatesBy Jason Spencer
A proposed $32.4 million expansion of the Spartanburg County jail would add just about enough bed space to house the number of inmates held there on a daily basis if it were magically built overnight.
But by the time it's actually complete - construction will take at least two years once planning is finished and designs are approved - the bigger jail will be at, or maybe over, capacity, and county administrators will once again be at square one with the problem of overcrowding.
The Spartanburg County Detention Facility, plus two small annexes, can hold 586 people. A project under consideration by Spartanburg County Council would close one annex and bring the total number of available beds to 966.
Since July, the jail has averaged about 920 inmates a day - peaking at 1,013 one day in September, and the inmate population is projected to grow. Past estimates have been all over the place, but two projections made in the last decade peg the number of inmates here between about 1,300 and 1,600 by 2015.
County government has been in this position before. The current jail opened in 1994 and was at capacity within a month.
Pacing around a small cell of typical layout - three bunk beds, which used to be two, stacked along one side of the room with a thin mattress on the floor on the other side - John Hammett waves his arms up and down in frustration. Hammett, who has been charged with aggravated assault, points in disgust to the small table on the back wall and says there's not even room for a chair to go under it because of the inmate who has to sleep on the floor.
"They got four of us in here all together," he said. "It ain't built for that. It was built for two."
Causes and effectsKeep in mind a jail is not a prison. The people in jail are still awaiting trial or serving short sentences.
The effects of overcrowding are sometimes easier to identify and easier to solve in the short term.
Too many inmates in a small space increases the likelihood of fights. Some will use the bathroom on the floor to anger either another inmate or a guard - or both.
And the officers in each "pod," as they are called, are responsible for feeding the inmates, getting them clothes and medicine, responding to fights or scuffles and other duties. When a pod is overcrowded, it wears on the guards, lowers morale and makes hiring more difficult. Hammett, for instance, is housed in Pod 4, which has 48 cells. A maximum of four people in each cell means there could be 192 people in one pod, whereas under ideal conditions there would be, at most, 96. Thursday, there were 187 inmates in Pod 4.
On top of that, infectious diseases can spread faster and lawsuits are more likely in an overcrowded jail, director Larry Powers said.
"It happens with everybody when you put them in cramped quarters, so you have to make the conditions as livable as you can," he said. "Because if you put people in situations where it's dirty, where it's not sanitary or not clean, and you expect them to behave, they're not. And you've got to keep it clean and safe for the staff to work, or no one's going to come to work."
But overcrowding can be a problem that feeds itself, said Solicitor Trey Gowdy, who chaired a committee to address the matter.
The constant beating of the drum about jail overcrowding can pressure judges to hear cases involving lesser offenses if it means freeing up bed space. In other words, Gowdy asks, if you were a judge, would you hear the case of someone who has been in jail for a year or someone who had maybe a more severe charge against them but had been out on bond for two years?
In the next few months, three court rooms will be running simultaneously in Spartanburg County to help unclog the backed up case load - a rare occurrence in South Carolina.
Gowdy supports a middle court proposal by Attorney General Henry McMaster for non-violent offenders sentenced to more than 90 days.
Sentencing in middle court could include substance abuse classes or completing a high school diploma.
And that follows the cycle through to some of the causes of crime, which Gowdy says need to be addressed just as emphatically as dealing with the crimes themselves. Alcohol and drug abuse, mental health issues and an "astronomically high" dropout rate need to be addressed or else jail overcrowding will be a perpetual issue.
"If we neglect the causes of crime, then we will be having this problem in five years, in 10 years, and we'll have a 5,000-capacity jail that still has an overcrowding issue," Gowdy said.
"I do understand the reluctance of wanting to invest $32 million. I can appreciate the political reality of that. But we've been debating this for years and years and years - and the consensus is always the same. Something has got to be done."
Gowdy wonders if bonds are set as a reaction to media scrutiny or to whether someone is a flight risk or danger to society. If the latter was the case, he doubts there would be an overcrowding problem.
Lying on a mattress on the floor in one cell, Marvin Lee Moore looks up and says, "It wouldn't be like this if they set people's bond so people could get out."
Moore is in jail because of a domestic violence charge. His bond has been set at $25,000.
Paying for itThe number of beds in the expanded jail has not been finalized. The 966 figure comes from the county's proposed capital improvement plan. Powers said he's had conversations where the number is as high as 1,500 beds, which he feels would be needed to fit the needs here over the next decade.
But he also points to the potential changes a jail that size could bring. Philosophies would change. Priorities could change. State statutes could change. A law enforcement agency's focus could change. If the "crisis" of jail overcrowding is eliminated, then so too goes the pressure to work on all the factors that contribute to that problem.
"It all boils down to money," Powers said. "Even though we're building the jail, we've still got to move people through court, and get guilty pleas, and do all the things to make the system function. Otherwise, people will say, 'Well, we've got this new bed space, so let's just put them down."
A detailed presentation will be given to Spartanburg County Council later this month on the jail project. Projected jail population over the next few years will be part of it.
"That may very well be the case, that the facility will be running at or near occupancy when it's complete. What we take away from that is that the problem with the population of inmates isn't one you can build your way out of," Assistant County Administrator Tom Gates said.
"Using our current practices, our population will continue to increase, and we'll be forever building more beds."
As the plans move through the approval process this month, administrators will have a better handle on the actual cost of the expansion project and the actual number of beds that can be added. Gates believes the county can afford slightly more than the 966 originally proposed with the current millage rate.
If the cost of building a bigger jail means raising taxes, it could become a political issue. This is an election year, and three seats are on the table.
One councilman is unopposed, one is locked in a three-way primary race, and one seat is being contested by four candidates - three Democrats and one Republican.
Gowdy says make the issue a referendum.
"They should say, 'This is the problem. This is the issue confronting us as a community. What is your preference?' I bet 80 percent of my fellow citizens would say that public safety is the preeminent function of government," he said. "It's the number one thing government owes us. And public safety is not serving us with an overcrowded jail and 3,000 people out on bond."
Either way, Powers says the problem isn't going to go away even if there are enough beds.
One inmate has been awaiting trial since 2003. More than 20 others have been in jail, charged but not convicted, for more than two years.
"I want people locked up that need to be locked up. I'm a member of the community, and I'm a pretty conservative law-and-order guy," Powers said. "At the same time, what we can't lose sight of is that the jail is a short-term holding facility. It's not a prison. So the people we're holding have to be fast-tracked. We have to turn those beds over."