Article published December 26, 1989
Experts seek alternatives to overcrowded facilities other than constructionBy LORI D. ROBERTS
Jail and prison overcrowding is not a problem that will fade with the coming of the 1990s. As the war on drugs and crime continues into the next decade, jail and prison populations are expected to soar, and existing facilities will swell with more inmates than there's room for. Without adequate funding, the pressure to accommodate increased inmate populations will fall heavily on the courts, the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services and the state's coffers.
To curb overcrowding and the high costs of building new facilities, the executive director of the state Department of Corrections, Parker Evatt, advocates more creative sentencing, especially for non-violent offenders. Providing alternatives to incarceration would alleviate some of the pressure to spend hard-to-come-by cash on constructing new facilities necessary to meet projected population demands. "The only viable answer is the strong use of alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders,"
Evatt wrote in a previously published article. "A strong probation system can make an impact on prison population," Evatt wrote. "Adequate funds have not been made available to provide for a probation system with an average caseload that would make judges feel comfortable and encouraged to place certain offenders on probation."
Programs already implemented by the Department of Probation under the 1986 Omnibus Criminal Justice Improvement Act give the courts a range of creative sentencing options, public information director Thomas Hudson said. The average cost of supervising a person in one of the programs is about $800 per year, considerably lower than the annual cost of incarceration, Hudson said. Slightly more than 29,000 clients are on the Department of Probation roll call, the majority of which are on probation. The remaining 4,000 are on parole or on some type of early-release program, Hudson said. And the arrival of the '90s is expected to greet a continual rise in the number of clients supervised by probation and parole officials, placing pressure on the department to meet a familiar challenge. "We have seen a increase of over 26 percent in the last two fiscal years," Hudson said. Projections for 1991 and 1992 show a probable jump in caseload to 33,000 and 37,000 respectively.
The optional programs operated by the department include restitution centers, shock probation programs, public service probation and intensive probation. House arrest and a statewide electronic monitoring system also can make an impact on admission rates for non-violent offenders. So far, the electronic monitoring system has been used less often than the other programs, "but we are pleased with the technology," Hudson said. There is a restitution center in Columbia, and a ground breaking is scheduled for early 1990 in Charleston, Hudson said.
To keep pace, department officials have asked the state Budget and Control Board for $2.6 million during the 1990-91 fiscal year to build two restitution centers, Hudson said. Spartanburg will be on the receiving end of that request, Hudson said.
Another alternative, Evatt suggests, is the use of work camps - 96-bed facilities built with inmate labor that will provide cities, counties and highway departments with a source of labor. Spartanburg County Sheriff Bill Coffey agrees with Evatt's contention that the trend in the '90s should be toward alternative sentencing, including community-based work camps. "People I've talked to say they want to see inmates out working," Coffey said. "I think we're going to see more of this in the 1990s." And, if the passing decade is any indication of what's to come in the next, the expansion of sentencing options is an undeniable necessity.
Last year, the Department of Correction's inmate population grew at a rate of 100 new prisoners per month. And the department had 2,125 more inmates to care for by Dec. 8 than it did at the same time last year, Evatt said during a joint meeting with the Budget and Control Board and the Joint Bond Review Committee last week. That number of beds is equivalent to two 1,200-bed minimum to medium facilities, or 22 96-bed minimum units. "If this rate continues in the '90s, South Carolina will need to build a new prison every eight months," Evatt wrote. "The fiscal impact of growth will shock most citizens of our state." Medium- and maximum-security prisons cost an estimated $38 million annually to build and operate. "By the year 2000, the cost of this projected growth will be $300 million in construction and operation costs," Evatt said.
Department of Corrections officials project an inmate population of 23,432 by the start of fiscal year 1993. They also report that the department will not have sufficient bed space after June 30, 1991, at which time the inmate population is expected to reach 18,471. These projections are based on an average monthly increase of 202 inmates. Consequently, the department was forced to submit a special capital improvement bond request earlier this month. If approved, the request will allow the department to remain in compliance until the start of the 1993-94 fiscal year. Currently, the department has 17,426 beds and is requesting 6,016 additional ones, which would bring the total to 23,442, yielding a 10-bed surplus.
In 1991, a regular bond bill is expected to be before the General Assembly, and Department of Corrections next year will be required to submit a five-year permanent improvement plan, which would cover fiscal years through 1996.
The Spartanburg County jail is no exception to overcrowding. "There's no doubt that at some point we're going to have to build a new jail," Spartanburg County jail director Larry Powers said. "We're limited on beds, and the (inmate) population keeps going up, and we have to have somewhere to put them." The time to build is now, he said.
The Spartanburg County Council last week decided to hire a Dallas architectural firm to design a jail facility at an estimated cost of $16.8 million. But three years are expected to pass before the facility will open. The Dallas firm will work with McMillan and Satterfield of Spartanburg. Meanwhile, council members are exploring alternatives to meet prisoner housing demands, including buying portable units and renovating existing county property.
In 1980, the Department of Corrections set the county jail's inmate capacity at 82. Since then, the facility's admission and count levels have ballooned. Annual admissions for the 1985-86 fiscal year jumped 1,100, from 13,743 in the previous fiscal year to 14,801, Powers said. That's 41 people walking behind bars each day and three more than the year before. The numbers fell during the next two fiscal years with 14,454 and 39.6 per day in 1986-87, and 14,417 and 39.5 per day during 1987-88, records show. Nonetheless, a significant increase was noted last year as annual admissions were up approximately 4,000 to 18,153 with an average daily count of 49.7, Powers said.
For the first six months of this year, admissions rest at 7,622 with an average per-day count of 43.1. Those figures don't include the overflow handled by the city jail. The city jail accommodates all of the county detention facility's female inmates and its adult male overflow at $20 per person in an effort to reduce the county's population. The average daily population recorded during fiscal year 1984-85 was 95 in the county facility and 10.5 in the city jail, Powers said. In 1985-86, the average daily count was 110 in the county and 20 in the city; in 1986-87, county capacity was to 113 and 19 in the city; in 1987-88, average daily count dropped to 110 in the county and rose to 22 in the city; and again peaked in 1988-89 at 123.8 in the county and 33.6 in the city.
This year has continued along the same trends. From July to November, the average daily count was 121.8 in the county and 23.7 in the city, and Dec. 1-19, the average daily count was 141.3 in the county and 42.3 in the city. And with the drug and crime situation at an all-time high, the numbers aren't expected to diminish.
"If law enforcement decides to be tough in certain areas, and the community wants that, there are going to be more (inmates)," Powers said. "And the courts need to be tougher because of a changing society, which means they (criminals) are going to be staying inside longer," Powers said, explaining that the jail is the central point for decisions made by other players of the judicial system.
"They're at the saturation point ... we have filled up to their capacity, and they're telling us they can't handle anymore," Powers said. "Therefore, it makes our count go back up."
The county has 114 bunks, which leaves some inmates sleeping on makeshift beds and forces jail personnel to put mattresses on cots to keep inmates from actually sleeping on the floor, Powers said. Powers said the courts have done well implementing alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders, agreeing that they must continue to consider the welfare of law-abiding citizens.
"There are a lot of people in jails and prisons that are dangerous to the community, and I certainly wouldn't advocate programs that would release (them) back into the community," Powers said. "Society has to deal with those individuals, and it's better for them to be in jail."
Parker's ideas are no different, but they suggest that non-violent offenders should pay for their crimes with labor that, instead of flattening the state's wallet, will fatten the state's income. "The state has to fully use every alternative in order to slow down the commitment rate," Evatt wrote. "This will take necessary funds, a total involvement by all elements of the criminal justice system and the backing of a concerned citizenry. "We must have the courage to be innovative and the strength to persevere," the commentary said. "If we continue to just talk about alternatives, the prison population will continue to grow ... and drain resources which would be better spent on behalf of all South Carolinians."