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Commissioners, sheriff at odds over jail woes

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NASHVILLE — Nash County commissioners have responded to the state’s depopulation of the Nash County Detention Center with a mixture of dismay, embarrassment and a strong vow to fix all the jail’s deficiencies to the state’s satisfaction as soon as possible.

“The thing that bothers me the most,” said county board Chairman Robbie Davis, “this is the first time any county has gotten a letter like this. This is very disturbing to me and our board.”

The N.C. Division of Health Service Regulation has ordered the county to cut its jail population from the facility’s current capacity of 219 beds to a maximum of 56 inmates until the county completes corrective action on a lengthy list of deficiencies listed in the Dec. 10 biannual inspection of the jail. Many of the problems were required to be corrected within days, with the remainder ordered to be fixed within 30 to 60 days.

Until the state is satisfied improvements have been made, the inmates have been dispersed to other county jails at what Davis said was a cost of $11,000 per day.

Davis said the daily cost “becomes a burden on the county very quickly,” which will not only affect the sheriff’s budget but potentially the county budget as a whole “on how we move forward with what we want to do.”

Adding to the growing rift between the board and the sheriff’s office, deputies said they were dismayed to learn last week that the county has taken control of their spending accounts.

“All purchases by the Sheriffs will be approved by the County Manager and Finance Director (non-essential items will not be approved,” county Finance Manager Donna Wood wrote in an email last week addressed to Sheriff Keith Stone.

The email indicated that the move was being made due to a Board of Commissioners request.

“We are a 24-hour-a-day operation that is tasked with keeping the citizens of Nash County safe,” said sheriff’s Maj. Miste Strickland. “And we just had all of our accounts frozen.”

According to the email, all sheriff’s office procurement cards had been deactivated and no non-emergency purchases would be approved. All invoices from the sheriff’s office will be keyed by the county finance office instead of the through the sheriff’s office, and all purchase orders not associated with contracts will be closed.

The email from Wood to Stone indicated that the county will not authorize payment for any item purchased without previous approval from the county manager and finance director.

Fuel cards for patrol vehicles will not be affected.

“We are now required to submit every single expense in writing for approval,” said Strickland. “I had blood on my uniform shirt today that I will now have to pay for personally to have cleaned, but it is biohazard and cannot wait for an approval process to go to the cleaners.”

The move came as a shock to sheriff’s office staffers who expected to see a freeze on spending at the detention facility until it could be brought up to state standards, but not a complete department freeze, especially with county staff who would approve expenditures being off three days for the Christmas holiday.

“We expected to see something at the jail, but this was completely unexpected,” said Strickland. “This puts citizens at risk.”

Stone and county commissioners have been at odds over how the facility should be brought up to date for several months, with Stone asking for additional funding after two successful escapes in 2019 through a compromised fence system in the facility’s yard, with one inmate also going through a malfunctioning or sabotaged door.

Inmates have also been successful in starting fires using electrical outlets and light fixtures. Stone has pointed to the facility’s condition as a core reason for not being able to fill open jail staff positions.

The report cited numerous electrical, structural and operational issues such as nonworking fire panels and smoke detectors, damaged and nonworking HVAC units, sprinkler system issues and severe understaffing.

County commissioners met in a closed session the same day the state’s letter was received and held the called meeting Dec. 23 to give a formal response by Davis on behalf of the board.

While maintaining his support for the sheriff, Davis defended the county’s role in the jail as supportive and said the main problem was a lack of “attention to detail. We have to get back to an attention to detail.”

Davis said the county jail had never had a problem in passing state inspections, held unannounced twice a year, until “the May 2019 inspection was the first sign of trouble.”

He acknowledged that drug use and gang involvement had changed the nature of inmates in the jail, creating an increased need for classifying and separating inmates, but said the biggest problem was within the sheriff’s staff running the facility.

“We have a real cultural problem in detention staff from top to bottom, maybe the worst I’ve experienced in my 50-year working career,” he said. “We have employees who have not bought into what they were paid to do and employees who are not comfortable with the job they have to do. It will take a lot of work to turn this around and have buy-in from everybody in this administration.”

Davis stressed that the jail’s operation is fully under Stone’s control as the elected sheriff and is not under the commissioners’ control. He said the jail was not underfunded and praised the maintenance staff for doing a “fantastic job under difficult circumstances.’

“The law is very clear on what we can assist with,” Davis said. “We can only ask and we can only beg. We will take care of our facilities in a timely manner and will continue to do what we always have to work with the sheriff.”

One of the problems with the Nash jail is a shortfall in staffing, which the state told Stone would have to be at least six and “recommended eight” guards per shift plus an additional officer per shift to be responsible for watching against fires because of deficiencies in the jail’s fire prevention measures.

Davis said the county had made several suggestions to Stone regarding staffing, including establishing a class for detention officers at Nash Community College, holding a job fair and hiring outside contract help with the jail, all offers the sheriff rejected.

“I don’t really understand that,” he said.

The county is taking aggressive actions to improve the jail, Davis said. He said the county had set aside $500,000 in the budget for jail improvements, already spending or obligating $347,848 for work on improvements, plus an additional two budget amendments totaling another $367,000 for the detention center. Many of the required repairs and renovations have already been made, he said.

A major action the county has also taken is hiring Mosley and Associates of Richmond, Virginia, to “do a full assessment and make recommendations of what improvements or additions are needed at our detention center,” Davis said, noting that the Mosley Group had handled the county’s recent courthouse addition and does “about 85% of all jail work in North Carolina.”

Stone has publicly pushed in the media and elsewhere for a new and larger detention facility, capable not only of housing the county’s inmates but also housing federal or other prisoners whose revenue, he said, would help pay for the new jail.

In response last week, Davis said he spoke for all the commissioners when he announced “We will not be constructing a new jail for Nash County” and “We do not have any desires to house any federal inmates in Nash County or any other type of inmates that we are not statutorily required to house.”

In a direct rebuke, the board also asked the sheriff to “stop the mass amount of news releases and press conferences concerning the detention center. This is a Nash County issue, not a state of North Carolina problem.”

But, Davis emphasized, “we stand ready to implement and fund what the Mosley study finds after a full review by all parties on renovations or additions to our current facility.”

Other steps the county will take to improve the jail, Davis said, include:

• An update at the beginning of each first monthly meeting of the board by the county’s facility director on the “facility side” of the detention center.

• A requested presentation each month by the sheriff in person on the “operational side” of the detention center.

• A request to the state, at the county’s expense if necessary, to conduct monthly inspections of the detention center for 12 months through 2020.

• A freeze by the county manager on all non-essential budget items in the sheriff’s budget except for court security.

“We don’t want to have the worst jail in North Carolina,” Davis said. “We want to have the best jail in eastern North Carolina.”

Individual commissioners echoed Davis in their support for the sheriff and desire to work with him in improving the jail.

“We’re voting to have a safe jail,” said Commissioner Dan Cone. “We’re going to work together. We will move as quickly as we can.”

“We’ve got a good sheriff and we do want to work together,” agreed Commissioner Mary Wells.

“We’ve been dealing with this issue for some time and it is our desire to bring it to some closure that would be acceptable to everyone,” said Vice Chairman Wayne Outlaw. “The chairman is speaking at our direction. We want to be fully transparent. We’re going to do what is necessary to correct the facility item. We’ll do whatever we can to assist with operational issues.

“We have a great sheriff and we appreciate everything he does,” Outlaw added, “but I’m hopeful that going forward, we can work together to address the issues we’ve got.”

Stone, invited to respond by Davis, said he agreed with “the attention to detail, that’s where a lot of these issues have come from.” But the sheriff declined to go into any further detail until the Mosley report is presented, possibly in February.

“That’s the better time to look and give a professional decision,” he said.