St. Clair County Jail superintendent discusses overcrowding issues
Editor’s note: On April 4, St. Clair County voters will decide whether they support a 1 percent sales tax increase for school facilities and whether they support a 1 percent sales tax increase for public safety. This is the third story in a series of five. Coming next: A look at what other items public safety sales tax revenue would help pay for.
Inside of the St. Clair County Jail, there are cracks in the walls and brown spots on ceiling tiles show signs of previous leaks. There are cell gates that don’t properly lock and easily slide open allowing someone inside the cell to walk right out.
The infirmary is overcrowded and some of the inmates have to sleep on the floor.
To prevent the jail from exceeding the rate of capacity of 418 people, every Thursday, inmates charged with misdemeanors may be released on their own recognizance.
These are among the issues that have St. Clair County seeking a hike in the sales tax to pay for a jail expansion and renovation, among other things. Voters in April will decide on whether to add 1 percentage point to sales tax rates in the county in order to help bolster public safety. The public safety sales tax would sunset after 12 years.
The sales tax would not apply to groceries, medication or titled vehicles.
If approved, the sales tax is expected to bring in about $22 million a year into the county, of which $6 million would be set aside for jail improvements.
In 2014, the county asked voters for quarter-cent sales tax hike to pay for a $36 million to $40 million jail expansion and renovations. That referendum failed by nearly a two-to-one margin.
The proposed 1 percent sales tax for public safety would not apply to groceries, medication or titled vehicles.
A similar project, plans for which would need to be drawn and finalized, could cost about $50 million if it were carried out today, said Sheriff Rick Watson. The $72 million that would be set aside over the 12 years for a jail project would have to cover construction costs and interest on bonds needed to be taken out to pay for the work.
Watson said he would want to expand the jail to have space for 675 beds and the improvements at the jail would reduce the amount of lawsuits filed against the county for conditions at the facility.
“There are sometimes I get five in a week,” Watson said.
At a recent county board meeting, the county agreed to settle four lawsuits brought by inmates who complained about unsanitary conditions and being forced to sleep on the floor, Watson said.
Read Part 1 of the Belleville News Democrat Sales Tax series: How much would the proposed sales tax increases cost you?
“Three of them got $5,000, one of them got $3,000. So you’re paying inmates to sleep on the floor. That’s taxpayer money too,” Watson said. “The county is self-insured up to $250,000. Every claim under $250,000, the county pays it. That’s county taxpayers paying it. Everybody thinks some insurance company is paying it. No, your tax dollars are paying it. Either you could build on to the jail, increase our capacity, or you could pay it out in lawsuits.”
To help alleviate overcrowding in the jail, every Thursday, the jail will release inmates on their own recognizance if they are charged with misdemeanors, Watson said. One recent Thursday, about 40 low-level inmates were released.
“If you don’t have any consequences, you have no rules. At this point in time we have no consequences because we don’t have a jail to house the people who need to be here,” Watson said. “They’re laughing in the back of the cars when the policemen are bringing them in here knowing it’s Monday or Tuesday, and I don’t post bond, they’re going to release me anyway.”
If you don’t have any consequences, you have no rules. At this point in time we have no consequences because we don’t have a jail to house the people who need to be here. They’re laughing in the back of the cars when the policemen are bringing them in here knowing it’s Monday or Tuesday, and I don’t post bond, they’re going to release me anyway.
St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson
Those who are released may commit another crime and could escalate to felonies, jail officials said.
“They’re going right back into your community. They’re going right back to the same place where they stole the neighbor’s lawn mower, (or) to Walmart and stole something,” Watson said.
Watson said he would want to buy a full body scanner as a way to search people to see if they have drugs or weapons when they come to the jail.
“It’s $160,000. We probably paid out more than that, in a strip search lawsuit. But I can’t buy it,” Watson said. “With a scanner in the jail, we don’t have to do strip searches anymore. It’s like going through an airport. So we cut our liability down there, by buying this one piece of equipment.”
Watson said if people who can’t post bond on their own have to stay in jail awaiting trial, they would have access to programs that would help them become productive community members.
“These people who are released are low-level criminals at this time,” Watson said. “If our judges had the ability to sentence somebody to the county jail for up to 364 days, guess what, we’ve got all types of programs. We’ve got GED programs; we could get you off of alcohol and drugs. We’ve got mental health treatment. We could do all these things for you that would maybe make you a productive member of society. Because we don’t have the capacity, we release you. Pretty soon they’re going to commit a crime that they’re in here 25 years to life. Only people who benefit from all these programs we have in the jail, are the people who are getting 25 years to life.”
An upgrade to the jail would help ensure the facility is more secure for the people who work there, county officials have said.
“One of the most important things we’re concerned about is security and safety for our staff and our inmates, because if the person gets hurt, the medical bill that is associated with that is going to be a tremendous high bill,” said Jail Superintendent Phillip McLaurin. “And also, if an inmate gets hurt, they’re going to file a lawsuit, no one knows what is going to be the end result of a lawsuit. Therefore safety and security is our top priority.”
Inside of the H-block, Corrections Officer David Nichols shows how easily some of the cell doors can slide open, and how they don’t properly lock anymore.
“They’re not supposed to be able to roll like this,” Nichols said.
He added the doors even wobble when they open.
In H-Block, only two cell doors out of a handful close and lock properly.
“One of the problems we have here is the gates are inoperable,” McLaurin said. “I can just open and close this gate manually. That’s not supposed to happen, because if I could open and close the gates, the inmates could do the same thing.”
The outer door to the block does lock properly to keep inmates from walking out of the area.
One of the most important things we’re concerned about is security and safety for our staff and our inmates, because if the person gets hurt, the medical bill that is associated with that is going to be a tremendous high bill. And also, if an inmate gets hurt, they’re going to file a lawsuit, no one knows what is going to be the end result of a lawsuit. Therefore safety and security is our top priority.
St. Clair County Jail Superintendent Phillip McLaurin
“We’re supposed to be able to keep inmates under control at all times,” McLaurin said.
Inside of the same block, there are signs of prolong leaks.
Nichols said during a random search corrections officers discovered a piece of metal that was near the bottom of a cell. It had rusted and broke off and could have been used as a sharped-edged weapon.
“Do you want that between your ribs?” Nichols asked.
“When you have something like this, they’re going to wrap their hand in cloth, so they could get a grip on it and not cut themselves,” he added.
Dropping off offenders
Jail officials say an expansion is needed of the facility’s sally port where police officers from around the county bring in people they’ve arrested. The current sally port only fits one squad car.
“Let’s say we have four or five municipalities that bring inmates in here, only one vehicle can come in the sally port, now those other three are parked out there where a sniper could come by, and do whatever,” McLaurin said. “We need to expand our sally port where we could get at least three or four vehicles in the sally port at one time to get them out of harm’s way.”
With the volume of prisoners and officers coming through, there’s room for one car in here. Every minute an officer waits to drop somebody off, is another minute they could be doing something else to serve the public.
Corrections Officer David Noble
The booking process, which includes taking photographs and fingerprints, a search of the person’s shoes and a pat down, could take five to 10 minutes when only one offender is being brought in.
“If you’ve got a line out there, they’ll get checked, sent in there, locked in, next one comes in. Same deal. Then you’ll have a pile of people in here,” Nichols said. “Then you’ll process them. You can’t keep processing them, when you have to keep coming in here to search people.”
“With the volume of prisoners and officers coming through, there’s room for one car in here,” Nichols added. “Every minute an officer waits to drop somebody off, is another minute they could be doing something else to serve the public.”
Crowded sick call
Inside the jail, the male infirmary is overcrowded. A shared area authorized for eight people, has 14 men, including some sleeping on the floor.
“We’re so overcrowded, you can’t help that,” said Deborah Hale, the health services administrator at the jail.
The office for the jail nurses is a small area where one person on the phone can be distracting to the other employees, Hale said.
“It’s hectic. The main thing is, if I’m on the phone, on one line or the other, and she’s on the phone, (and) if I’m trying to make appointments or the doctor is calling and the jail is calling me, we have two lines in here. That’s very challenging,” Hale said. “You try to be on one line, she’s on the other line it’s hard to hear.”
Hale said she would want to have 25 individual rooms for inmates when they’re sick.
“If you got somebody that’s got something contagious, you would want them in individual (rooms),” Hale said.
Read Part 2 of the sales tax series: Here’s how schools would use money from proposed sales tax hikes
The treatment room can only accommodate one inmate at a time and has a worn down bed that was donated by Scott Air Force Base.
Hale said she would like to accommodate three to four inmates at a time, as the nurses see 40 to 45 cases a day.
Down the hall from the infirmary is the jail kitchen that serves the jail. It was built to serve 250 people. It now feeds more than 400 people, said Mary Robinson, the food service director. She said equipment needs to be replaced including a new tray system.
“In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen the population go as high as 520 people,” Robinson said. “And we have to feed them with the same equipment we had to feed 250 people.”
“It makes us work longer hours,” Robinson added. “We have to start early, some of the things we have to prepare a day ahead of time, instead of preparing them in the moment.”
Fixing what’s broken
Making the small repairs within the jail is difficult because of the overcrowding issues, said James Brede, the director of buildings for St. Clair County.
“One of the biggest things we have, our problem we face now, is our beds are full,” Brede said. “What we used to be able to do, years ago, is to go into a block, take it out of service, move inmates to another location while we go through, service and weld, and fix and repair things. We don’t have that luxury today.”
Brede said they can pull inmates out of a block for two or three hours by temporarily putting them in a gym.
“We have nowhere to go just to do routine repairs and maintenance,” Brede said. “They break the gates faster than we can fix them.”
Motors for cell gates, get torn out and cost $1,000 each to repair, Brede said.
The jail was built in the 1970s. Additions, including a lower level expansion, were opened in 1988 and 1995. However, systems such as the heating ventilation and air conditioning are still the same size, leading to stale air.
“In our study we had, the HVAC needs to be upgraded, probably made bigger,” Brede said. “You added those two additions on … everything that supplies them for water, from the kitchen, the laundry, all of that is still the same size of the original jail. They’re not even adequate in size to support the numbers we’ve added over the years.”
The jail was built in the 1970s. Additions, including a lower level expansion, were opened 1988 and 1995. However, systems such as the heating ventilation and air conditioning are still the same size, leading to stale air.
County employees sometimes deal with clogged drains that lead to flooding.
“Our biggest problem with lower level, way they designed the grates down there, they shove their shampoo bottles down there, they shove their shower caps down there,” Brede said. “They’ve got 24 hours a day to figure out how they’re going to mess things up. … They’ve got a lot more time to create us grief.”
Inmates will even stuff toilet paper into toilets to cause them to overflow, Brede said. However, there is technology where only one flush is allowed, rather than continuous flushing to prevent flooding.
“It’s like anything else, labor is more expensive, parts are more expensive, and inmates today can defeat the old systems so much easier and it’s costly to maintain,” he said.
If the sales tax is approved, how and when the construction at the jail would need to be planned out, including finding a place to house inmates during the projects.
“One of the ideas we had, with the new addition, once that came online, we would be (able) to take a lot of those inmates move them over to the new addition, while we go back in and get in there, take time and bring a lot of that stuff up to date,” Brede said. “If we had that luxury of being able to do that, that would be a lot of help. We probably be good 20 or 30 years down the road again.”
The county has purchased nearby houses to the west to accommodate an expansion of the facility.
Brede said newer jail designs, with pods is a safer environment for inmates and corrections officers, “when everything shuts and locks and works.”