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State demands changes at Nash jail

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NASHVILLE — State officials are calling for the immediate reduction of the inmate population and numerous improvements at the Nash County Detention Center.

The aging jail in the last year has been the site of two escapes, inmate violence, stabbings, fires and other troubles that led an inmate to file a lawsuit claiming deplorable jailhouse conditions.

Sheriff Keith Stone, County Manager Zee Lamb and county Board of Commissioners Chairman Robbie Davis received a Dec. 18 letter from the state requiring immediate reduction of the inmate population pending corrective action. The state inspected the jail in May and December.

“Barring an immediate commitment to resolve the issues outlined below, the agency will avail itself of its statutory authority to require depopulation and corrective action in order to protect the safety of inmates and staff,” according to the letter signed by Steven Lewis, chief of the N.C. Division of Health Service Regulation’s Construction Section, which falls under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ umbrella.

To prevent the state from stepping in, the sheriff has to agree to reduce the jail population to 56 inmates or fewer, limit the number of inmates assigned to each dormitory and provide a bunk for each inmate.

The jail has a typical population of around 150 male inmates and as many as 200 at times, according to information previously provided by the sheriff’s office.

The state requires the following changes:

• Due to an inadequate smoke evacuation system, dedicated fire watches must be posted throughout the facility.

• A minimum of six guards must be on hand on each shift.

• All exit doors must be free of obstructions.

• Repair or replace all two-way communications.

• Fix food access in segregation areas.

• Install more fire alarms.

• Remove metal bunks from blocking exits in the recreation yard.

• Provide more thorough searches of inmates, visitors, staff and contractors for contraband.

• No longer house inmates in medical area.

Stone said he inherited the jail’s deficiencies and has repeatedly documented the situation. He said he began making notes of problems immediately after taking office five years ago, and has handed over his observations to county officials.

“After being sworn in as sheriff of Nash County on Dec. 1, 2014, these deficiencies were relayed to the county manager and county commissioners that were serving at that time,” Stone said. “As time has gone by, the deficiencies of the detention facility have been duly documented.”

Stone said inmates and employees are treated fairly under his direction.

“We are working to adhere to the inmate reduction mandate and taking care of the security issues documented in this letter,” Stone said. “I have had numerous meetings with the county manager and chairman of the county commissioners to get these concerns resolved and will continue to work with them to bring closure to the issues.”

Davis called for an emergency county board meeting Thursday to discuss the issue. He set a special meeting for Monday so the board could outline actions it plans to take moving forward.

“A majority of the facility-related items addressed by the state have been taken care of or are in the process of being taken care of,” Davis said. “The board in not involved in the operation of the jail, which falls under the total purview of the sheriff.”

At the sheriff’s request, Brad Hompe, an independent justice consultant, spent two days reviewing the facility. Hompe is contracted through the National Institute of Corrections, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Hompe said in November that the jail has strengths and weaknesses.

“The positive is that the sheriff and his staff see the need to have the assessment done,” Hompe said. “They are concerned and want to do the right thing. They have done a number of things here in the county. They have a large camera project underway. They are looking at a new jail management system. And they appointed a new captain. They are assessing jail contracts and health care. Those are all good things.”

Hompe said there are immediate needs that should be addressed for staff and inmate safety. Hompe would not elaborate at the time and his report hasn’t been made public.

Stone said previously that the troubles at the jail illustrate the need for more staff and upgrades.

In August, inmate Jamey Lamont Wilkins filed a lawsuit against Stone and three high-ranking deputies involved in jail administration. In his four-page complaint, Wilkins claimed his isolation cell has human feces on the walls and ceiling with the waste falling into his hair, food and his bedding. Wilkins also claimed he has often had no choice but to drink from the toilet.

Several inmates interviewed by the newspaper during a September tour of the facility said they’ve never had to drink out of the toilet bowls. One inmate said if there is feces in Wilkins’ cell, then the waste probably belongs to him.

Stone said most of Wilkins’ allegations are nonsense, but the facility is in need of an overhaul. The sheriff added that overcrowding is a real issue.

The decades-old jail was last expanded in 1999.