PICKENS COUNTY — The Pickens County Sheriff’s Office Detention Center is rated for occupancy of 93 persons but for the period of January through the end of April, occupancy averaged 176 on a daily basis.
Being out of sight and out of mind, members of the community rarely have a glimpse of the impact of this overcrowding on inmates as well as staff, not to mention the tax dollars associated.
There are also safety concerns for officers of PCSO and the individual rights of inmates as well.
“Safety is always our number one issue when it comes to overcrowding,” Sheriff Rick Clark said. “Where under normal circumstances we would have one officer on an assignment within the jail, with the numbers we have to manage we have to have two to three there.
“Every time one of our officers opens a cell door there are 12 to 15 inmates on the other side when there should be five,” Clark adde. “We’re trying to make sure we have upgraded training for response to emergencies, but the problem affects more than the officers.”
The inmates also face higher risk in the overcrowded facility.
“There is a safety factor with the inmates as well. They have to be kept safe and taken care of,” Clark said. “In order to do that we have to segregate gang members from one another, segregate inmates who may have a running violent history with one another, and those with medical issues.”
It seems isolation cells would be the answer, but the detention center has been forced to reduce the number of isolation cells from 10 to three to accommodate more inmates.
“We aren’t able to isolate as many as we need to with having to reduce our number of isolation cells,” Clark said. “Those cells not only help us segregate population but also are used when an arrest is made and the person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There has to be a place for them to detox.”
On May 11, Pickens County Council’s Criminal Justice Committee held its first meeting to begin evaluating options. The committee is represented by Clark, council members Tom Ponder and Randy Crenshaw, Bob Hiott of Behavioral Health Services, Eric Turner of the Department of Mental Health, and Amanda McDonald of Probation and Parole.
“This was a guiding meeting more or less, a beginning to the process of exploring our choices in how to correct the problem,” Clark said.
What does Clark hope the committee will be able to accomplish?
“We’re looking at the efficiency of the entire system, not just construction to reduce the population problem,” he said. “We have to understand and know how each department in the entire system works to make it all work more smoothly together.”
Clark had approached Pickens County Council for assistance in obtaining a grant for the Jail and Mental Health Collaboration Program that would have addressed substance abuse and mental health issues with inmates.
Councilman Neil Smith made a motion to move Clark’s request from the council agenda at its April meeting to the Committee of the Whole, which removed the opportunity for PCSO to qualify for the aid because the deadline expired before the next scheduled committee meeting.
According to Clark, keeping one person out of jail for one consecutive year saves taxpayers $10,000. As concerns taxpayers, Clark addressed the budget of PCSO’s detention facility as well and the problems created by overcrowding.
“Our real budget buster is the cost of food to feed our inmates because it robs other areas of the budget,” Clark explained. “Our budget allows for anywhere from four to six months of meals and then we have to request more from Ralph (Guarino, Pickens County finance director and acting administrator) to be transferred from the general operating budget for the department. It may sound odd, but that’s not as much of a problem when the cost of gas is down.”
Beyond the cost to taxpayers is the cost to inmates. The overcrowding issue has made the availability of programs such as Celebrate Recovery, a drug addiction recovery program, and a program offering GED classes to inmates all but impossible as there are no secure areas available.
“There’s no room for them to meet because there isn’t the physical room available in any secure area,” Clark said. “All of our secure areas are having to be used for other purposes.”