Report found understaffed jail, unsupervised inmates

CHESTER -- The Chester County Detention Center was understaffed, allowed inmates to use maintenance room keys without supervision and housed suspects accused of dangerous crimes with those charged with lesser offenses, according to a 2007 inspection report from the state Department of Corrections.

Also, an S.C. Association of Counties official warned the county last month that the jail's ceiling leaks could cause mold and mildew, problems that pose health risks and could lead to a lawsuit against the county.

The jail has failed state inspections for 17 consecutive years. Its deficiencies have resurfaced amid a debate about whether the county should build a jail or renovate the current facility. Last week, the state fire marshal's office sent County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey a letter saying the county must bring the 34-year-old jail up to code by next year or the state will shut it down.

County leaders plan to ask voters in November to approve a 1-cent sales tax hike to pay for jail upgrades. Chester County Sheriff Robby Benson says the county needs a new jail but Roddey believes the county could only afford renovations to the current one.

The state Department of Corrections inspected the facility earlier this year, but that report isn't complete. The most recent report is from Feb. 15, 2007, and highlights numerous problems. Among them:

• The jail was "significantly understaffed," the report states. The office had 28 people at the time of the report. That staff not only monitored the jail for pre-trial inmates, but also the prison camp for sentenced inmates in another building.

• Inmate maintenance workers weren't properly supervised because of a shortage of staff members. State regulations require workers to be under constant supervision. Those workers also had keys and access to most of the maintenance areas. No inmates are allowed to have any jail keys under state guidelines.

• Inmate workers had too much unsupervised access to the jail's tools. Jails are required to have a "tool control plan" to monitor which tools are being used and how. "Tool control and tool accountability are haphazard at best," the report states.

• Some jail doors couldn't be locked because they were broken. These doors weren't for occupied cells, but for storage rooms and unoccupied cells which are still required to be locked.

• The jail had a plan to separate inmates based on gender, the seriousness of the charge and other features, but the staff couldn't always follow those guidelines because of overcrowding.

• The number of inmates in the jail was greater than the guidelines for cell capacity. The jail for pre-trial inmates is designed to hold 76 people. The average daily population for the three months before the inspection was 113. The high count for the previous year was 142.

• When the jail had "significant overcrowding," the required ratio of toilets and showers to inmates was not met. The jail also couldn't provide a bed for each inmate during these times.

• The jail had no space to provide religious, educational or library services.

• The facility didn't completely comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Jail staff address report

Both Benson and Maj. Wayne Alley, the jail administrator, said they've made many changes since they received the inspection report last year.

Alley said the ADA violations stemmed from a broken handicap-accessible toilet and the facility's lack of a telephone for the hearing impaired. The toilet was fixed, and the county now has the required telephone.

The "overcrowding" was based upon the amount of square feet each inmate is required to have under state guidelines, Alley said. He said the facility has enough beds, but not enough space. The reason the jail was cited for a bed shortage in the report is because the inspector came to the jail when rival gang members were being housed there.

"We were trying to put it where nobody would be in a cell that claimed they had problems with each other," Alley said. That means someone may have slept on the floor to avoid housing adversaries in the same cell, he said.

Although the jail has a plan to separate inmates based on the severity of charges and other qualities, the staff can't always follow the guidelines because of space limitations, Benson said. Men and women are always separated.

Alley said the jail doors have been fixed, as have the toilets that caused the write-up for the inadequate amenities.

As for monitoring tool and key access, Alley said the minimum security inmates who use the keys for the maintenance areas don't need to be escorted by an officer. Inmate workers sign in and out when they use tools and keys, but guards don't follow them.

"It's like I tell the state guy when he comes, 'If we had a full-time maintenance crew, we wouldn't have to worry about inmates,'" Alley said. "I don't have the staff to go out there and escort inmates to the maintenance shop every time we need a screwdriver."

Alley and Benson said problems with space and staffing shortages are beyond their control.

Benson said he asks the County Council for more jail staff every year, but he can only work with what he's given. The current jail staff would be sufficient for a differently designed facility, Benson said. But the design of the old jail requires more guards to monitor the inmates. The jail now has 33 staff members after filling some positions.

He said staffing is the jail's greatest problem and another reason why the county needs a new jail.

"If they're gonna leave the jail, and leave it the way it is, it's still going to be understaffed," he said. "We're down to the bare minimum. ... When someone's out sick, sometimes we're down to three people during a shift."

Mold and mildew woes

Other challenges facing the jail today are mold and mildew, dangers described in a letter to the county from Robert Benfield, the S.C. Association of Counties' risk manager.

"There are numerous holes, some leaking water, located in the ceiling throughout the detention center," the letter states. "Several of these holes are the same ones that I identified in my 2006 recommendations."

The leaking water could cause officers or inmates to slip and fall, the letter states. Along with that problem, the letter says, "the intrusion of water into the ceiling and walls could lead to the growth of mold and mildew which could also result in injuries and litigation."

"We've got a ventilation problem," Alley said. "Some of the cell blocks sweat and the water runs off the windows, and it runs down the walls, causes moisture, mildew."

Jail staff is combating the mildew issue by cleaning with bleach, Alley said.

Some ceiling holes continue to leak, regardless of the continuous patching. Alley said he no longer patches those holes.

"That's wasting money," Alley said. "That big hole down that big hallway, that's been patched too many times. I won't put Sheetrock back up there or nothing else until they get the leak completely stopped."

Many of these problems have existed for years.

But one County Council member said he didn't know how great the problems were until he saw the photographs of the disrepair in Wednesday's Herald.

"That is the first time that I'm even aware that there were holes in the ceiling," County Councilman Alex Oliphant said. "There's no reason that that couldn't have been fixed by somebody. ... Nobody's told me."