Evaluators to discuss overcrowded SC county jail
Some detainees are on bunks and some are sleeping on mats, which is leading to rising tensions among inmates
By Nikie Mayo
Anderson Independent Mail, S.C.
The numbers are unrelenting.
Anderson County's Detention Center, built in 1956 and meant to house 257 inmates, held 411 Tuesday. Conservative estimates by jail staff show that at least 80 percent of the inmates are not there because they have been convicted of a crime. Rather, they are awaiting a court date, a bond hearing or a trial.
Spaces intended to be classrooms for inmates have been converted to cells. Room set aside for inmates to talk to lawyers, psychiatrists or law enforcement officers is also at a premium.
"Detainees are engaging in altercations on a fairly regular basis," Capt. Bill Vaughn, the interim jail director, said. "Overcrowding cannot help that. Especially when some inmates are on bunks and some are sleeping on mats. Tensions seem to rise quicker."
With that reality in mind, officials from the Anderson County Sheriff's Office and the county government are hosting a public meeting Thursday they hope will mark the beginning of a dialogue about the future of the jail and the local justice system.
The meeting will include some early findings of evaluators affiliated with the National Institute of Corrections. Those evaluators, a team of two, arrived Tuesday to begin interviewing Anderson County judges, chiefs of police, Sheriff Chad McBride and others who are affiliated with the justice system to learn about their issues or concerns. They are not interviewing inmates, Vaughn said.
He said the evaluators will also look inside the jail ahead of the Thursday meeting.
"This is about seeing if there are other areas that we can address that are causing our overpopulation, and also making sure that we are making every effort to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money," Vaughn said. "It's a good, concerted effort to be more educated."
McBride, who took office in January, said a month into his term that Anderson County needed a new jail and has needed one for a decade. But the same price tag that stopped his predecessors -- $35 million to $60 million, depending on who is estimating -- caused some officials and residents to balk.
Despite those complaints, Anderson County has at least two critical jail issues that won't go away. For more than a decade, Anderson County's jail has been cited by the South Carolina Department of Corrections' Office of Compliance, Standards and Inspections for failing to meet state requirements. And safety concerns grow when there are too few guards to manage too many inmates in a too-small space.
"A new jail is a necessity," said Anderson County Administrator Rusty Burns. "But nobody ever won re-election by saying, 'Hey, look at this new jail I helped build.'"
Pickens County Sheriff Rick Clark has grappled with some of the same issues as his Anderson County neighbors. The PIckens County Detention Center is meant to safely hold 91 inmates and had 188 Tuesday, he said.
Pickens County is expected to start building its new jail, with a capacity to house just over 300 inmates, within the next couple of months. The decision to build a new $24 million jail came after concerns about overcrowding and a lawsuit claiming that the tight space contributed to an inmate's injury in a fight last year. Before the decision to build was made, Pickens County sought and obtained the same kind of evaluation Anderson County is about to get.
"It was really helpful to us because it brought all the stakeholders together," Clark said. "And the biggest stakeholder to invite into these discussions is the public."
Burns said Thursday's meeting is the first of a series of gatherings meant to reach residents.
"The Anderson County Council recognizes there is a need," Burns said. "We believe this is just the beginning of a process that will ask questions like: How big of a jail do we need? Why are these people in there and how long? What is causing bottlenecks and what can we do to fix them? What's the next step we need to take?"
(c)2017 the Anderson Independent Mail (Anderson, S.C.)