Overcrowding at county jail getting worse; illegal immigration crackdown contributes to problem

July 27, 2008 

BEAUFORT -- Last weekend, the Beaufort County jail was packed, setting records for the most prisoners the county has held.

The detention center, opened in 1992, was designed to house 255 inmates.

Early last Sunday morning, the jail held 441 people, a result of the drunken-revelry at the Beaufort Water Festival and the county's continued illegal immigration crackdown and, maybe, a mischievous energy in the air.

Ninety-seven new prisoners were booked last weekend. Most have since been released on bond.

"The full moon, the Water Festival and the (federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) operation all sort of vortexed last weekend," said jail director Philip Foot.

Overcrowding is not a new issue at the jail. County officials have been talking about it for at least two years.

But lately the situation been exacerbated by a number of factors, including a tough economy and Operation Surge, the 90-day ICE operation.

Agents are identifying every suspected illegal immigrant booked at the jail -- regardless of the severity of the crime -- and placing "holds" on them to pursue deportation hearings once their criminal charges are satisfied.

In the past, suspected illegal immigrants charged with minor crimes like traffic violations were booked at the jail and released on bond. Because they're now being held for ICE, their stays in the jail are much longer, sometimes up to 30 days for the most minor criminal cases.

Operation Surge is just a taste of what's to come.

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office will soon have five officers trained and certified to enforce federal immigration laws. They'll continue to identify suspected illegal immigrants at the county jail long after the ICE agents leave.

Since the federal operation started on July 1, 95 suspected illegal immigrants have been held for ICE.

In June, only 16 were kept for ICE.

On Thursday, the jail held 391 prisoners.

Since the immigration crackdown began, the jail has averaged about 400 prisoners, up from an average of 350 at the beginning of the year.

County administrator Gary Kubic predicts the jail might hit the 500 prisoner mark soon.

AT THE BREAKING POINT?

When the Beaufort County Detention Center was designed, officials projected it would suit the county's needs through the year 2020.

The county's old jail on King Street -- built in 1938 -- housed fewer than 100 prisoners, so it's easy to see why officials believed a 255-prisoner facility would last.

But population growth and other demographic changes did not work in the jail's favor.

"We just hit it a lot earlier than was anticipated," said Weston Newton, chairman of the Beaufort County Council. "I don't know that you can tie it to any one particular factor."

The county rejected requests by The Island Packet to photograph inside the jail. Reporters were allowed to view the jail's five regular housing units, a protective custody unit and maximum and super-maximum security blocks.

Inside the normal housing units on Wednesday morning, the scene was orderly.

Prisoners dressed in jail-issued smocks walked around freely inside the units, playing basketball, lifting weights and watching television under the watchful eye of guards.

Inmate assaults have remained steady at about two per week, according to Foot. Because manyprisoners have yet to go to trial or are serving short sentences, the facility doesn't have serious weapons, drug or gang problems.

The most telling sign the jail is above-capacity is in the gymnasium, or more accurately, what formerly was the gymnasium.

The space has been used to house prisoners for some time. They used to sleep on mattresses spread out on the floor, but two months ago, the jail added 22 bunk beds and tables to create more order.

So what's the breaking point -- the number of prisoners that stretch the facility and its employees so thin that security is compromised?

"I really can't put a cap on it," Foot said. "I don't know what the magic number is."

LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS

This past budget cycle, the county approved hiring 15 new guards, which equates to about five additional employees at any given time.

Those guards have yet to be hired.

The county is also moving forward with a plan to add magistrates at night to set bond amounts for incoming prisoners. That potentially means fewer people would have to spend the night in jail.

Prosecutors are considering dropping the charges against suspected illegal immigrants accused of victimless crimes, such as traffic violations and disorderly conduct.

They would then be transferred to the custody of ICE, which houses suspected illegal immigrants in buildings throughout the Southeast until their deportation hearings.

Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he has identified at least 15 such prisoners.

Solicitor Duffie Stone has proposed hiring three new prosecutors and a victim's advocate, a team of seasoned prosecutors to prepare trials against savvy prisoners who will not plead guilty and who he doesn't want to give plea bargains to.

The county hasn't yet approved that $187,050 budget request. Stone would also need to find $77,400 from other sources.

FINDING FIXES

Despite some media reports to the contrary, the county probably won't build a "Camp Beaufort," an idea floated by Tanner to house prisoners in tents surrounded by razor wire, Newton said.

A similar camp is used in Maricopa County, Ariz., but frequent legal challenges to the facility, and different state regulations for jails here may make that a difficult approach.

Foot said such a camp would only be pursued in the case of an imminent crisis.

State regulations also might make it difficult to convert any existing building into a dormitory or add pre-fabricated temporary housing to the jail.

Foot said he's still evaluating and weighing the costs of both options.

While there are no easy fixes, there are several seemingly feasible options. Any new building would probably take about two years from the time funding is secured.

The most likely medium-term fix would be construction of a housing unit to hold misdemeanor offenders, dead-beat dads and other prisoners who are able to work during the day, but are required to sleep in jail. Such a building would free up about 71 beds.

Newton has requested that the county hire a consultant to explore that idea.

In the long-term, the county will continue to consider expanding the existing jail, which was designed to allow add-ons relatively simply. From the air, it's shaped like half a bow-tie.

The problem with completing the bow-tie is that nearby government-subsidized apartments and a county parking lot used primarily by the Sheriff's Office and county Emergency Management employees would have to be demolished.

"There are some challenges," Newton said, "but it doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to be doing."

Sheriff Tanner also has proposed three federally-funded regional jails in South Carolina that would each hold up to 400 suspected illegal immigrants awaiting deportation hearings.

The cost: $15 million.

Tanner hopes Operation Surge -- which is also taking place in Charleston, Richland, Lexington, Greenville and Spartanburg counties -- will illustrate the need for the federal government to build new jails to house suspected illegal immigrants in South Carolina.

With increased ICE holds and deportations, conditions are ripe for over-crowding at federal and local holding facilities, said Tammy Besherse, a staff attorney with the Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia.

"Sometimes (transferring a suspected illegal immigrant to another facility) is so fast people don't realize it," she said. "But as more and more of these situations occur, they may not be able to do that. There may be a backlog getting people into these facilities."

Island Packet reporters Tim Donnelly and Michael Welles Shapiro contributed to this report.

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