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16th Judicial District Criminal Dentention Facilities Review Committee says ... Fix it or close it - no choice

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Most of the people living in Fulton County have never seen the inside of the Fulton County Jail. The majority of the population are law abiding citizens and have never had a reason to see it. Most people know it's located in the sheriff's department building but may not know where in the building it actually is or what condition it is in.

There is a committee that is very familiar with it -- the 16th Judicial District Criminal Detention Facilities Review Committee -- and after working almost 20 years to keep the jail in compliance with the state, Jail Administrator Jo Ann Cunningham, Fulton County Judge Charles Willett, Salem Police Chief Albert Roork and the Quorum Court know the end has come and a change must be made.

The building housing the sheriff's office and the jail was built in 1977 with the jail located in the basement. It is accessed by two flights of concrete steps just inside the lobby door. It's rated for a capacity of seven inmates, but many times, Cunningham said, they have more than seven men in the jail. When that happens, thin mattresses are placed in the small cells to double and sometimes triple the inmates housed in one small cell designed for one person.

The jail is not designed to house female inmates. Instead, the county must transport females to the Sharp, Baxter or Izard County jails and pay $45 a day for another county to house them. Fulton County is responsible for transporting these inmates back and forth for court appearances.

Juveniles are housed in Batesville.

The facility, although outdated and worn, is clean and organized for such a small area. Both Roork and Willett credit Cunningham with this and for the effort she has made in keeping the jail open this long.

The last inspection in August of 2009, shows that the administration, personnel, record system, rights of the accused in custody and rules of conduct for personnel, and security, are all in order. The problem begins with prisoner separation.

"We cannot house females, we cannot separate an 18-year-old from felons and we cannot separate felons from those in here on a misdemeanor," Cunningham said. "And that could create a problem."

The jail is in compliance with their communication, visiting and food service requirements, but it takes a lot of extra time and effort to make it work.

"Visiting is a problem," Cunningham said. "There's no way to separate visitors and inmates."

A proper visiting area is one of the requirements that has to be brought up to state standards.

"It's a big problem," Roork said. "People have ways to pass things including weapons to the inmates. It's dangerous. This entire area is dangerous and people could get hurt and have. I was hurt very bad down here by two inmates trying to escape. This has got to change. We've got to have a jail in Fulton County but we can't keep this up."

Just getting three meals a day to an inmate is quite an undertaking. The kitchen is located upstairs and although the food service requirements are being met and the facility is inspected by the state health department, jailers must prepare the meals and then carry them down two flights of concrete steps and slide them into each cell.

Comfort and convenience for inmates are not the major objective of the standards ordered by the state but safety of the prisoners as well as those working in the sheriff's office is a main concern.

"This facility may have been in compliance in the 1970s when it was opened, but it wasn't good. It was as dangerous when it was opened in 1977 as it is today. It was never any good and I'm qualified to say that, because I've been hurt bad down there. I know how dangerous it is," Roork said. "It's a very dangerous facility and there is nothing you can do to make it safe because it's not made right. That's why you wouldn't want to put any money into it, you could put $50 million into it and you'd still have an albatross that was dangerous, it wouldn't work for you. It won't work. To have a jail where one turn of a key and they're out in the public is a nightmare. You've got to have more than one turn of a key to keep a dangerous person out of the public."

On the date of the August inspection, the county was housing 12 inmates, almost double the amount the facility was built to handle. Other areas of non-compliance listed were: females are not held; juveniles charged as adults cannot be separated because of space; juveniles are not held; inmates are not separated by class as required by law; there are not two exits from each housing area; booking is not in a secure area making it very dangerous for staff and inmates; cells do not meet general housing requirements because of over population; there is no observation cell; and visitation is not secure and is very dangerous, allowing for contraband to be passed to inmates.

The inspection notes: "This jail is too small to meet the needs of this county. The committee strongly urges the Quorum Court to work with the judge and the sheriff to find a solution to these problems. The committee is going to re-inspect the jail in six months to check on the progress made."

According to Judge Willett, as long as the county has a plan in progress to correct the problems the state will allow the county to keep the jail in operation until a facility is completed.

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