The population boom nobody wants. York County needs more space for inmates, sheriff says

York County sheriff on inmate spike

York County SC Sheriff Kevin Tolson talks about more inmates coming from Rock Hill and Fort Mill. He wants an eastern booking facility.
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York County SC Sheriff Kevin Tolson talks about more inmates coming from Rock Hill and Fort Mill. He wants an eastern booking facility.

It isn’t the population increase anyone wants. But York County’s sheriff says it’s here, and something will have to be done.

York County is booking and housing a growing number of inmates, and there’s reason to believe another wave is coming that could double demand on the booking end. There’s been talk for years about a new booking facility on the eastern side of the county. Sheriff Kevin Tolson sees a need for more than talk.

“This has been discussed from previous councils for 18 years now,” he told the county Justice & Public Safety committee when it met March 1. “I just need some direction.”

County leaders say they’ve met with law enforcement in Rock Hill and Fort Mill about upcoming changes that could put further stress on how the sheriff’s office operates. Andy Merriman, assistant county manager, believes the county at least should be looking toward acquiring land for an eastern booking center somewhere near the Catawba River.

“This 18 years have culminated to the point where that light at the end of the tunnel very well may be a train,” he said.

The need

As of 2017, a little less than 70 percent of arrest bookings in York County came from incidents in the Fort Mill and Rock Hill areas.

“And that’s only going to increase,” Tolson said. “That’s where the population is.”

As populations swell on the eastern side of the county, so do inmate populations.

“We’ve spiked, county population, about 110 inmates (per day) in the last two years,” Tolson said. “A 15 percent increase from last year.”

In 2017 county inmates averaged 377 per day. In 2018 the average jumped to 433 county inmates.

In January, there were 460 per day. In February 163 inmates went to court and 103 were released. It made little difference.

“We haven’t gone down,” Tolson said. “We’re putting our finger in the dike. We release 100, we get 100.”

In 2010, then Sheriff Bruce Bryant reached an agreement to house inmates for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a fee, generating revenue for the sheriff’s office. The county could have up to 72 inmates at a time. In 2017 the county averaged almost 58 ICE inmates per day. A year ago a federal case against ICE, arguing the detained weren’t given timely bond hearings, ended the agreement.

Now ICE inmates are going directly to the closest immigration court.

“Where we used to be a hub, they’re now direct busing to Atlanta for those inmates,” Tolson said.

Even with the loss of those inmates, the total inmate population continues to climb. Per day inmate totals, according to sheriff’s office records, have increased each year since 2015.

“Our female inmate population has skyrocketed over the last year-and-a-half, two years,” Tolson said. “For drug violations, basically, or crimes related to drug addiction.”

The county has a 540-bed facility. But, Tolson said, an 80 percent full site is considered max capacity. His office has to keep 16-year-olds separate from 17-year-olds, and they must be separated from adults, plus men and women also are separated.

“From there you have minimum and maximum, immediately,” Tolson said. “Due to their threat assessment as a danger to others and staff.”

With or without a new booking center, Tolson said, space will be needed somewhere.

“Eastern side or not, it’s my belief we need additional space in the jail,” he said. “And we’re going to need it much sooner than later.”

Heading east

Moss Justice Center is further west than the ongoing population boom in Fort Mill, Tega Cay, the unincorporated area between them and Lake Wylie. It’s in a more rural area with other county facilities from animal control to public works to the landfill. Any figures on new booking or detention space, said York County Councilman Robert Winkler who represents the area, is going to show expansion at Moss as the less expensive option.

“There’s a reason Moss Justice is where it’s at,” he said. “It was cheaper.”

Which doesn’t mean, Winkler said, expansion there is the smartest option. He is ready to start planning for an eastern booking site in the coming county budget planning this summer.

“If you understand growth, it’s coming,” Winkler said. “Start putting some numbers together, start doing it and let’s start working toward it. We need to do it.”

Tolson points to S.C. 160. West or east doesn’t matter, he said. If an officer arrests someone on S.C. 160 anywhere near Fort Mill or Tega Cay within a couple hours of rush hour, it’s going to take a while to get to Moss Justice Center.

“You’re going to be off the road for four or five hours,” Tolson said. “You can imagine what that means to the coverage in that area.”

Leaders aren’t sure how large a new facility would be, or whether the facility should be a smaller version of Moss Justice with a jail or simply a place for booking and short-term detainment before sending inmates to Moss Justice for longer stays when needed.

A booking center or small scale detention center near the river — Tolson said it wouldn’t matter whether it’s the Rock Hill or Fort Mill side — would make for quicker trips. The idea has been discussed for almost two decades. County leaders floated the idea of a bond to pay for an eastern booking center, and debated where expansion should go.

Without one, the sheriff’s office got creative. Tolson’s group can charge a per diem to municipal police departments for housing inmates on typically smaller, municipal level charges for up to 30 days. The sheriff’s office agreed to waive that charge in Fort Mill for the ability to temporarily keep some bookings at the police station until a sheriff’s office transport could bring multiple offenders to Moss.

That agreement isn’t in place anymore, due to one of several changes Tolson sees in the all-too-near future.

Major shifts

Several county leaders say they’ve had discussion with local law enforcement agencies anticipating significant changes.

“Fort Mill and Rock Hill are both making moves to get out of the jail business,” Tolson said. “It’s a business I guess nobody really wants to be in.”

Initially Tolson thought Rock Hill might close its jail this summer, based on conversations with the city. Now he isn’t expecting it until later. A closed jail in Rock Hill or Fort Mill would mean police departments there would need agreements with the county to book and house inmates. The Rock Hill jail is of particular concern.

“They book almost what we book every year,” Tolson said. “So we’ll almost double our bookings if and when Rock Hill closes their jail.”

Several county leaders say they’ve had conversations with Rock Hill about a potential jail closing. Bill Shanahan, county manager, said funding agreements would have to be settled. He and other county officials say talks have been amicable.

“We don’t want to make a dollar off them, but we don’t want them to cost us money, either,” Shanahan said.

Kevin Madden, assistant county manager, said he met with Rock Hill officials and had productive conversations on ongoing operational costs if the city were to stop running a jail. Numbers have been discussed, in-line with current operational costs. Discussions with Fort Mill haven’t come to dollar figures.

“Both sides have to agree on something,” Madden said.

He feels confident both sides could reach a fair agreement, when dealing with the municipalities.

“They’re not going to try to stick it to the county and leave the county high and dry,” Madden said.

Still, a doubling or more of the booking need could shoot the eastern site up the priority list.

“We have a need coming up very shortly for something,” Madden said.

The last time serious conversations took place on an eastern site, consultants estimated a 100-bed site costing up to $17 million. County leaders say that price is well on the high end, including land purchase and other variables that could be significantly different depending on a final plan.

Tolson brought operating cost estimates to the recent meeting for what it would take to run the site if it’s built. Those figures showed 23 employees at $1.3 million annually for personnel costs, plus $130,000 in non-employee costs.

County leaders say they’d like to get more concrete numbers on the total project.

“We need some concrete numbers on land, where,” said York County Councilman Britt Blackwell.

Madden said if the county wants an eastern booking site, plans need to begin. It could take four years or more from a made decision before a new facility is up and running.

“We need to start setting aside money now for whatever it might be,” Madden said.

A site just for booking on the eastern side, with expansion at Moss Justice, is an option. Yet county leaders are concerned with something too small on the eastern side, where population totals — overall and inmate — only are expected to increase.

“If you want to think really long-term, what are we going to look back 30 years and be glad we did, it’s going to be something of some significance,” Madden said.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.

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