The first meeting of the county’s newly seeded jail committee addressed the real problems facing the county commission.
Rocking the country with the highest rate of incarcerated prisoners, the state of Georgia has already taken steps that will lower the prison population by enacting HB 265, which raises the minimum thresholds, taking what had formerly been felonies and knocking them backwards into the realm of misdemeanors. While that may have had the desired affect on the state’s facilities, the local counties will be facing prisoners with mandated stays in their jails, creating an unfunded mandate of prisoner storage that is having financial effects on the community.
With the construction of the newer Fayette County Jail in 2005, commissioners believed that would be enough to keep up with the impact of the county’s prison population. However, with the new rules going into place, the Fayette County jail is going to be a much more crowded institution, prompting concerns of overcrowding and pushing the commission into reconsidering the use of the long-closed original jail.
Shut down when the new jail was built, the original facility hasn’t been on the receiving end of maintenance or updates over the past 10 years. In fact, according to county commission chairman Steve Brown, there hasn’t even been a budget item enumerated to keep the facility up to par.
Last month, responding to fears from the Sheriff’s Department about those conditions, Brown appointed a 12-member jail committee- Brown, Sheriff Barry Babb, local attorney Claude Paquin, Nova Brown, Chuck Watkins, Bob Ross, Tommy Turner, Bess Stevens, Scott Bradshaw and former Peachtree City manager Bernie McMullen- to determine what was in the best interests of the county. Should the old facility be torn down or renovated? Should an extra pod be added to the new jail? Or should the county consider trying to board prisoners to other facilities? Cost effectiveness was the watchword, with common sense running a close second.
As of December 2010, said Brown, mold problems in the showers prompted the commission to start thinking about what they were going to do about getting inmates out of the facility safely and the possibility of retrofitting the old building, but the conclusion was that it wasn’t in any shape to handle it, given its problems with plumbing, HVAC issues, boiler problems, non-locking or sticky doors and rusted window frames. In a June 2011 update during the budget process, nothing was mentioned about the possibility of maintenance for the old building.
“It just sat there for nine years, vacant, going to pot,” said Brown.
In April 2012, Deputy Charlie Cowart brought the condition of the jail to the commissioners attention again, asking about work that might bring the old jail building back into operation. At that point, officials began expressing concerns as the new facility was starting to reach the 80 percent capacity threshold.
“We needed to start worrying about what we were going to do then, in terms of additional staffing issues, maintenances costs. So, in September the commission approved a needs assessment study of the county’s jail system, including the feasibility of restoring the old jail, demolishing it and adding another pod to the new jail and boarding out jail inmates to other facilities and paying the costs associated with that.”
In 1986, the old jail opened with 75 prisoners and approximately 20,000 square feet, with the upper pod being housing- utilizing 75 to 150 double bunks and remote supervision. That facility was vacated in 2003. In 2010, the jail reached an all-time high of 351 inmates and faced a capacity problem of 384. At that same rate of growth, the jail will be full capacity again in nine years with the Pod C renovation or the initial use of the new pod.
Utilizing a needs assessment provided by Mallett Consulting, Inc. in October 2012, the group reviewed the problems and potential of utilizing the old jail facility.
According to Mallett’s report, there are three alternatives, broken down into a cost per day per inmate report, but none of those figures includes the cost of record-keeping, medical or administrative amounts.
At that time, the estimated cost to upgrade Pod C was placed at $1.15 million. Now that cost could be as much as $2 million and it was noted that the cost of renovation bids varies widely.
The new pod option was based on a concept plan with 116 cells in a configuration similar to the other housing units. The facility is about 50 percent larger than an upgrade to Pod C and would allow for more efficient management and would serve the county further into the future.
The new pod would be a “clean’ construction job and should attract competitive bidding, according to Mallett. The total suggested budget for that project is $9 million.
Renovating the old pod would provide 75 cells, all double bunked and used for maximum security, with 31 cells used single occupancy and the remainder at double occupancy to hold a total of 119 inmates.
The figures show a $676,000 annual cost for employees and, to cover additional building maintenance, an additional employee at another $50,000 per year. Capital costs will be $2 million or $80,000 annually at four percent.
A new pod would be 50 percent larger than the existing pod c, with 116 cells, all double bunked. Employee costs to cover all shifts would be approximately $780,000 and an additional 50,000 for additional building maintenance. The capital costs here will be $9 million or $360,000 annually at four percent.
Farming out inmates to other facilities, another option the committee is reviewing, would cost the county about $45 per day, per inmate and the county will still be responsible for medical costs, which amounts to about $10 per day per inmate. It would also still be responsible for administrative costs and record-keeping for inmates housed off site, leaving off-site housing the most expensive consideration.
Payback on the old pod’s renovations would take about three and a half years; the new pod construction would take 16 and a half years to pay off. The proposed new pod gives the county 232 new beds, while the upgrade only provides 150.
More than that, Mallett noted, the basic building structure of the old jail is ‘sound and adequate’ despite its age, but the building configuration is out of date and doesn’t work for direct supervision of inmates.
Mallett pointed out that building costs are never going to be lower and as soon as the economy improves the county can expect to see construction hikes of 20 to 30 percent. Their recommendation would be to go with the new pod construction.
Committee members didn’t necessarily agree with the numbers and wanted to see the jail facility for themselves before even holding more discussions to make a determination. Additionally, there was some question as to whether the old jail will even meet federal guidelines in terms of the square footage of the cells.
Another factor that may have an impact on the feasibility of a new jail - or remodeling the old one- was the recent discussions of Fayette County becoming its own judicial circuit, as opposed to being part of the Griffin Judicial Circuit, which includes Fayette, Paulding, Pike and Upson counties.