State inspectors find faults at Lancaster County detention center

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJune 1, 2013 

— The Lancaster County Detention Center violated several minimum state standards last year, including the failure to provide proof of written procedures for disciplining inmates, according to the state Department of Corrections.

An annual inspection by state corrections officials found 11 total violations, according to a report obtained by The Herald. The violations included overcrowding and an inadequate number of staffers.

Inspectors determined detention center officials could not provide formal documentation showing inmates received due process when they were accused of violating the jail’s rules and procedures, according to the report.

That documentation, inspectors say, should include guidelines giving inmates written notice of violations at least 24 hours before a hearing. Also, written procedures should give inmates a chance to prepare a defense at hearings before an impartial panel of officers.

“It doesn’t mean they aren’t doing things the way they should be done, but they did not provide anything that’s able to be verified,” said Blake Taylor, director of the corrections department’s compliance, standards and inspections division. “Without the documentation, you can’t really confirm that it’s happening.”

Faced with limited staffing and inadequate space, the detention center is doing the best it can “keeping the ship afloat,” Taylor said.

The Lancaster County Detention Center, located along a main stretch of S.C. 9, was built in 1980 and remodeled in 1998. It is approved to house local and state inmates.

The Department of Corrections inspects each county detention center annually but only evaluates records, documents and conditions within the last 90 days of an inspection date. The 2013 inspection has not been conducted.

‘They know what the deal is’

Written procedures for inmate violations would prove invaluable if the detention center faces a lawsuit, Taylor said.

“You want to be able to show that you’re conforming to the expected practices,” Taylor said. “It’s somebody’s word against somebody else’s word if you can’t provide it in your paperwork.”

The state’s minimum standards for local prisons and detention centers say rules should be stated “simply” and either posted “conspicuously” in housing units and booking areas or given to inmates when they enter a detention center.

Inmates booked at the Lancaster detention center don’t receive rulebooks, and the rules aren’t posted, said Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile. Detention center officials don’t have manuals or written guidelines showing what they should do when a prisoner violates a rule.

“They know about it, they know what the deal is,” he said.

Officers determine an inmate’s discipline, which may include restricting a prisoner’s visitation days, Faile said.

“That’s surprising to me that there isn’t documentation,” said Brad Tripp, a Winthrop University sociology professor who teaches classes in criminal justice. “You really want to have as much transparency (as possible), especially nowadays.”

Having that documentation is “an important function of a jail and prison system,” added John Boston, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the New York City Legal Aid Society. “In a bureaucracy of any sort, not having rules to guide people on how to perform…presents the risk that they’re not going to do it right.”

Boston said detention center officials risk losing a legal battle or paying the costs of a trial without formal documentation.

The state inspection notes there was no paperwork showing records of hearings or proceedings. If a prisoner filed a lawsuit claiming “ABC happened at my hearing, or maybe, ‘I didn’t have a hearing,’” but prison officials say differently, officials risk not getting “litigation dismissed at an early stage, even if they are correct,” he said.

“They’ll go to trial in that case and will increase expenditures and waste the time of everybody concerned.

“One of the most basic requirements of a prison disciplinary system is that the rules are written down so everyone knows what they can be expected of…and punished for,” Boston said.

But Faile said inmates know the process.

“An inmate’s an inmate,” he said. “When you’re in jail, it is what it is.”

No grievance

Inspectors consider lack of paperwork as a “technical violation,” Taylor said. “A technical violation is important, but not a shocking revelation or a major problem,” he said.

He said the Department of Corrections doesn’t immediately follow up to ensure the policies have been written. That is determined at the next inspection the following year, he said.

Typically, Taylor said, detention centers are quick to fix technical violations.

“All they have to do is publish and that would be the end of the problem, as far as our office is concerned,” he dsaid.

The inspections division serves to “remind” county detention centers of shortcomings, not blemish their reputations, Taylor said.

“We try to be supportive and work cooperatively” rather than be adversarial, he said. “It’s rare that counties are uncooperative” with coming into compliance after reports are issued.

If jails consistently neglect what officials find over several years, or the facility itself is unsafe for inmates or staff, then state authorities can close the facility, he said.

“That is not the case with Lancaster,” Taylor said, adding that he’s confident the detention center will come into compliance if it already hasn’t.

The convicted and the accused

More concerning for state officials is persistent overcrowding and understaffing that force officials to use any available space to house inmates.

Suspects held before their trials are often housed in cells with convicts who have already been sentenced, the inspection shows.

The Lancaster County Detention Center primarily houses suspects before their trials, Faile said. On the date of last year’s inspection, the center had 84 total pretrial inmates and 47 convicts. The combined 131 inmates counted that day exceeded the jail’s inmate capacity by 10.

It’s not the facility’s sentenced inmates — most of whom received sentences of less than 90 days for minor crimes, such as shoplifting — that’s worrisome, Taylor said. Rather it’s the pre-trial inmates who are charged with murder or other violent crimes, Taylor said.

“The facility attempts to separate them as much as possible,” he said.

Mixing pretrial suspects and sentenced inmates is “pretty common,” said Daniel Vasquez, who runs a corrections consulting and investigative services firm in Antioch, Calif.

County jails often house more un-sentenced inmates than they do sentenced, he said. “You have to do what you have to do. It’s really no risk to it. It’s all in the classification.”

Jailors work to ensure that co-defendants, men and women, and gang members are placed in separate cells, Faile said. Beyond that, officials do what they can with limited resources, he said.

State prison officials recommend that the number of inmates occupying a cell, room or dorm not exceed the rated capacity of the available space.

The inspection determined that the jail regularly houses “a good many” male inmates in excess of its official capacity. The report goes on to say that the average number of female inmates held at the detention center exceeds the amount of space available.

“More space is needed for both genders,” the report states.

Population numbers for the detention center should not exceed 109 male and 12 female inmates at one time, inspectors said. During the 90 days prior to last year’s inspection date, the average daily population was 128 men and 14 women.

Cells that should house only one inmate hold multiple detainees, the report states. Some inmates slept on mattresses placed directly on the floor, inspectors noted, while several cells were missing seats, adequate writing surfaces and sufficient storage space.

“It’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure,” Faile said. “The more crime you have, the more cases you work; the more officers you add, the more people they lock up. People who can’t make bond, we’re stuck with them.”

Last year’s inspection came just as the county had a surge in violent crimes, with officers investigating 14 total homicides. Arrests were made in all except a double homicide outside a club in March.

By May, when the jail was inspected, 10 people had been murdered so far in 2012 in Lancaster County.

“There’s really not much more they can do without either adding on or building a new facility,” Taylor said. “They can’t turn people away. They definitely need to be looking towards an expansion or a new facility down the road.”

Such a decision would rest in the hands of voters, said Steve Willis, county administrator. The cost of building a new jail would exceed the county’s authority to borrow money without voter approval, he said.

Faile said he discussed potential expansion plans with the National Institute of Corrections, and detention center administrators will attend classes hosted by the Planning of New Institutions program later this summer.

He hopes to present County Council with a five-to-10-year expansion plan. Cost estimates haven’t been determined.

“The design of the jail that we have now is certainly not what you see around the state or country these days,” he said, adding that, “it’s just not built for the population and type of inmates we house.”

Staffing challenges

The inspection also determined that the Lancaster jail did not have enough security staffers and other employees to “cover the required posts and to supervise the inmate population.”

Inspectors counted 28 full-time and two part-time security personnel to contend with inmates at the time of the inspection, according to documents.

The state Department of Corrections requires each facility to have “sufficient personnel” to supervise and process inmates 24/7. However, state standards do not provide a specific number of security officials needed to be considered “sufficient personnel.”

The detention center staffs six officers across four shifts. The jail has one administrator and a second-in-command who does a lot of “heavy lifting” but operates without a dedicated clerical and recordkeeping staff, Taylor said.

In their report, inspectors suggested the detention center retain more administrative and support staff that can book, process and classify inmates.

A “deliberate, methodical” staffing analysis showing county officials deficiencies in the amount of personnel might solve some of the issues, Taylor said.

“We’ve talked with council before about adding more staff,” Faile said.

The detention center received $1,858,719 in total funding from the county this fiscal year, down $15,000 from the previous year. This year, leaders approved creating a position for a training officer.

Increases in health insurance premiums, fuel costs, creating a consolidated 911 center and increasing employees’ salaries by 2 percent were top priorities for county leaders in this fiscal year’s budget.

Discussions for added detention center staff were complicated because of “constant vacancies due to staff turnover,” Willis said.

To compensate, he said, county leaders installed a career ladder that would promote internally and fill the vacancies.

No surprise

None of Lancaster’s violations were “particularly surprising,” Taylor said. “They have, over the years, struggled like many counties do. Economics is a reality. You only have a certain amount of money to spend and you have lots of other needs.”

Operationally, “they’re doing as well as anybody given what they have to work with,” he said. “They’re probably going frantically from day-to-day, keeping the ship afloat.”

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