Article published October 25, 2001
Crowded cells make tense jails
County looking at alternatives to adding more space
Too many prisoners - County may be forced to add more jail spaceBy BAKER MAULTSBY
On busy nights, some inmates at the Spartanburg County jail sleep three to a cell.
Meanwhile, each officer must monitor the activity of as many as 120 prisoners -- twice the number of prisoners some experts believe an officer can safely and efficiently supervise. It's a situation that can cause tension for jail officers and inmates, according to director Larry Powers.
"Obviously, it makes things more hectic," he said. "Inmates have a tendency not to get along in a two-inmate room with three inmates."
Though beds were added when the county opened a new jail in 1994 and an annex makes for extra room, overcrowding has been "an ongoing problem for some time," Powers added.
In the 2000-01 fiscal year, the average daily population at the jail was 612 inmates -- triple the daily population 10 years earlier. This month, the jail has housed as many as 665 inmates at once. The increasing jail count suggests a rising number of criminals in Spartanburg County, but that is only part of the story. Last year's study by the Berkeley, Calif.-based Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP) reported that "the primary force driving jail growth in Spartanburg County has been an increase in the average length of stay." The study found that while admissions to the jail rose 32 percent from 1991 to 1999, the average length of stay grew more dramatically -- from 4.3 days in 1991 to 10.6 days in 1999, an increase of 142 percent.
Because the majority of inmates in county jails are there only to await trial, longer stays aren't a matter of sentencing so much as process. "That's when it takes a cooperative effort to see where the holdup is and what can be done," said Joann Morton, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. "Before asking to build more bed space, local communities need to ask, 'Have we done everything we can to use the beds we have as effectively as we can?' " That's what Spartanburg County leaders say they're trying to do.
"Basically, we're looking at every option possible to avoid ... building more jail space," said County Council Chairwoman Karen Floyd. The thrust of that effort is the county's investment in computer systems that will integrate information between the offices that process inmates. Currently, those entities have trouble sharing information, according to the ILPP study, because their record-keeping systems do not interface or are out of date. The idea is that if the Sheriff's Office can't quickly share arrest information with the solicitor's staff, prosecution of the case will be delayed. Or if the clerk of court doesn't have easy access to jail records, it may be difficult to organize time in the courtroom. Improving communication will cost up to $4 million, but county leaders believe it will "pay for itself in the long run," as Floyd put it.
The first phase of the project has been implemented. In the meantime, county officials say they're doing their best. Magistrates are on duty 24 hours a day, and since taking office in January, Solicitor Trey Gowdy has worked to reduce the county's criminal court backlog. "The numbers have improved since Trey's been in office. We're doing everything we can to move folks through the system," said Solicitor's spokesman Murray Glenn.
County jails in South Carolina also house inmates sentenced to less than 90 days of incarceration, and Spartanburg is working to decrease its sentenced population. County Council has invested in a special drug court that requires rehabilitation rather than jail time.
Council also recently passed first reading on an ordinance to contract with a private company to supervise home detention for certain offenses. The program, for instance, would allow a man convicted of failure to pay child support to keep a job and support his family. While those alternatives to incarceration do not affect large numbers of defendants and therefore do not have a substantial impact on reducing jail population, they are a step in the right direction, according to Morton. It's a shift in mentality that she thinks is important as the jail population grows. "In the South, people have generally seen incarceration as primary punishment," she said. "There are other ways to punish people."
Still, adding jail space may be necessary in Spartanburg County, according to Blake Taylor, the Director of Inspection and Operational Review for the state Department of Corrections. He credits Powers' effective management of the Spartanburg County jail with minimizing the problems that result from overcrowding. "But that only goes so far," Taylor said.
Baker Maultsby can be reached at 582-4511, Ext. 7425, or firstname.lastname@example.org.