Article published September 5, 2008
Spartanburg County Council marks Sprung jails off listBy Jason Spencer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Spartanburg County Council continued its how-to-build-a-better-jail quest in the Queen City this week, and it apparently was able to cross one option off its list. Councilmen have struggled for months to figure out a way to get more jail for less money. The Spartanburg County Detention Center has long been overcrowded, at times housing nearly twice as many inmates as the facility - and its staff - is rated to handle. On the table is a $46.1 million expansion that would bring the total number of beds in the jail to 1,136, likely putting it at or even over capacity by the time it is built.
On Thursday, six of the seven councilmen, County Administrator Glenn Breed and jail Director Larry Powers toured a facility under construction in Charlotte, N.C. There, Mecklenburg County is spending about $17 million to build two Sprung Instant Structures - buildings that resemble giant, tent-like Jell-O molds on the outside, with concrete and fiber-reinforced gypsum wallboards lining the inside.
The minimum-security buildings - one will house 320 inmates, and one will act as an administration building - can be constructed, start to finish, in six to eight months. Construction is set to begin next year on a second Sprung building for another 320 inmates.
"This is what's going to give us the security and integrity to satisfy our needs," Capt. Mike Greer with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office told the Spartanburg delegation. "If Sprung is a 10- to 15-year solution for you, then this might be it. But if you're looking for a 50-year solution, then it's not."
Most, if not all, of the elected officials left thinking that the cost was too much for the expected benefit. Council Chairman Jeff Horton pointed out that the county will be issuing 20-year bonds to pay for the jail expansion here, and it doesn't make sense to borrow money for 20 years to pay for something that might only last 10.
Several officials pushed against the synthetic woven fiber that covers the outside of the building with apprehension. Leaving, Councilman David Britt said, "I know a 10-year-old who could get through that."
Powers, who has said for the past few years that Sprung structures wouldn't meet this county's needs in terms of housing inmates, left smiling, calling the walls "shower curtains with insulation."
"I'm glad council came and looked at it," Powers said. "It's a temporary solution. It's cheap and it's quick."
For Charlotte, that's what is needed, said Maj. Roy J. Rivers with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office. Rivers will run the Sprung buildings once they're up and operational. Like most county jails in the country, Mecklenburg has an overcrowding problem - one that needs an immediate solution.
"We're in a hurry to get people off the floor," Rivers said. "That creates security concerns."
The inmates in the Sprung buildings will only be allowed video visitation, to curb security problems, he said.
Councilman Michael Brown didn't think Sprung buildings would work for the jail expansion here, but added they might be useful in the future for, say, inmates involved in a work-release program.
Last month, Spartanburg officials toured pre-fabricated modular buildings that are part of the Charleston County jail expansion. Those were met with a bit more approval, though not everyone was impressed. Together, the two modular buildings cost $4.5 million.
Council likely will plan a future visit to the Horry County jail, which opened two, 64-bed dormitory housing units in August. Those buildings cost $3.7 million.
On the ride back, Britt - who missed the Charleston trip - expressed support for looking into an in-house substance abuse program at the county jail. Spartanburg officials left that city speaking highly of such a program, which Charleston has in place, as it was said to dramatically decrease the chances of someone becoming a repeat offender.
Powers said, off the top of his head, that implementing such a program here could cost about $120,000 a year, not counting the coordination needed with area agencies and nonprofits that provide similar services.