Cook asks BCC to help with overcrowding crisis at jail

By Don Coble don@opcfla.com
Posted 9/1/21

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Time just doesn’t move slowly at the Clay County Jail, it stops. The lighting is dim; the humidity created by so many people crammed into a confined space seems to suck the …

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Cook asks BCC to help with overcrowding crisis at jail

Posted

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Time just doesn’t move slowly at the Clay County Jail, it stops. The lighting is dim; the humidity created by so many people crammed into a confined space seems to suck the energy from everyone, particularly the unlucky few wearing yellow and white striped overalls.

The jail is full. To the rafters full. With so many sleeping on the floor, inmates often have to weave a path through a maze of those who are trapped, physically and emotionally, by their own doing.

Clothes are draped over handrails because there’s no room for storage. There are a few board games and decks of cards, and if anyone's interested, there’s a small cart of paperback books. But for the most part, most inmates either lay on their mattresses, slowly pace around the pod or make an undignified trip to the toilet that has no privacy.

It’s a miserable place. Then again, it is jail.

Conditions have become a serious problem for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. The building is falling apart. The inmate population is often beyond maximum capacity. The air conditioning flickers on and off and water pipes leak in the roof.

Although the jail opened in 1972 and has been expanded twice since, it still uses a video monitoring system that utilizes original eight-inch floppy disks that were created in the late 1960s – nearly 20 years before Pac-Man was released and 30 years ahead of the first Game Boy.

To make matters worse, the agency is extremely short-staffed.

“Our staff has to work in that environment,” said Chief of Detention Administration Christopher Sueflohn. “It’s a very difficult situation for everyone. It seems like we’re always putting out forest fires.”

Sheriff Michelle Cook knows getting millions to build an annex – or better yet a new jail – is a hard sell. The Board of County Commissioners were given charts and graphs and they heard compelling information that clearly shows the desperate need for a major overhaul. They also heard similar pitches from the two sheriffs who preceded her, but compared to other needs of a growing county, the jail hasn’t been a major priority. After all, it’s difficult to garner sympathy for society’s trouble makers.

But the county will soon run out of CARES Act money, temporary patches and rolls of duct tape to fix the dilapidated infrastructure in a building that wasn’t supposed to be challenged in such a manner.

“It’s our job to create a safe, secure environment,” said Chief of Detention Security William Arnold. “I don’t know what we’ll do if we don’t get something in the works.”

Like other county departments, Cook is in preliminary negotiations with commissioners, staff and county manager Howard Wanamaker about additional money to address the problems at the jail. One of the proposals includes a .5 increase in the millage rate from 8.101 to 8.601. It would be county’s the first millage increase since 2014.

That money is for the operation of the agency, not possible expansion. The only current source of funding for repairs comes from the temporary CARES Act.

“From Day 1 I have been working with my leadership team and county leaders on this issue,” Cook said. “I have documentation going back to 2013 when Sheriff Rick Beseler noted at that time there was a need to increase the jail capacity. We have kicked this can down the road for at least a decade and that road has come to an end. As the county’s population continues to grow our inmate population will continue to grow, and that’s the bottom line.”

Eventually, the jail will run out of floor space for temporary beds.

Today’s maximum capacity is 492 prisoners, but it’s surpassed 500 on several occasions this summer, including 540 two weeks ago. The 492 includes the use of “floor cots,” which are nothing more than vinyl mattresses that are placed in plastic shells along the walls and in walkways.

“We’re literally packing them in there,” Arnold said. The more that are crammed into the facility, the tenser the environment becomes.

According to Penal Reform International, overcrowding and a lack of privacy can aggravate mental health problems with increases in rates of violence, self-harm and suicide.

“They’re packed in there really tight,” Arnold said. “We’ve seen increased instances of fights, especially against our staff. It’s challenging. It’s an old building and we’re working on several large issues.”

Officials don’t want jail conditions to affect the agency’s Excelsior Status from the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation. Excelsior is the highest rating, and it comes with a demanding list of requirements. It’s also an important tool to maintain public confidence and deputy recruitment.

The jail has been forced to use space once designed for education and programs to house the overflow.

Arnold said prisoners get antsy when the population exceeds 80%. Now he can’t remember being less than 90%. Clay County has deals with neighboring jails in Duval, Putnam, St. Johns, Baker and Bradford counties to help with the overflow, but those counties have their own problems with overcrowding and COVID-19. Currently, Putnam is the only county that occasionally accepts prisoners from Clay – and it comes for a $60 a day charge.

The cost of keeping 25 prisoners at the Putnam County Jail for one month is more than the annual starting salary from a new sheriff deputy, Sueflohn said. And that doesn’t include the cost of using two vans and deputies for the transport.

One of the biggest challenges for jail officials is to educate the public about the people who are behind bars. Many residents have the perception cells are packed with people charged with low-level drug charges and crimes like and trespassing and shoplifting. That’s not true, Arnold said.

The county took a “snapshot” of its population on Aug. 24, and there were 495 prisoners. Of those, 469 faced a combined total of more than 1,300 felony charges, Arnold said, while just 26 were being held on misdemeanor charges.

Despite the difficulties, CCSO vowed to maintain order.

“Under no circumstances will I release dangerous criminals into our community,” Cook said. “We must find a long-term solution to our jail capacity issue.”

“We work hard to resolve encounters [in the public], but the people who need to be in jail are going to jail,” Sueflohn said. “We’re not going to sacrifice safety for a bed. We’re not going to walk away from people who need to be in jail.”

As the county continues its record growth, spawned partly by the construction of the First Coast Expressway, the problems will only get worse, Sueflohn said. There also are new concerns for maintaining order when large crowds gather. Just last Saturday, several fights broke out at a carnival in the Orange Park Mall parking lot and across Wells Road near Men’s Warehouse. In the process, deputies reported hearing six or seven shots – and seeing muzzle flashes – from two separate shootings.

A few were arrested, including a 20-year-old Jacksonville man who had a handgun in his lap.

“There’s another perception we get paid by the number of people we arrest,” Sueflohn said. “That doesn’t happen. People in here need to be in here.”

And it’s not pleasant. Last Monday morning – usually not a particularly busy day – there were 127 men in one of the D dorms. That was just three fewer than the maximum. The air conditioner labored overhead, and it was so muggy and uncomfortable for everyone on either side of the bars.

“It’s not a fun place to be by any means,” Arnold said.

The problems are barely manageable now, and delaying the rectification will only delay the inevitable and make matters worse.

If that’s possible.

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