07/23/07 — Overcrowded jail concerns Duplin sheriff

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Overcrowded jail concerns Duplin sheriff

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on July 23, 2007 1:45 PM

Faced with more inmates than beds, Duplin County Sheriff Blake Wallace has begun working with other county officials to find a way to alleviate the overcrowded situation.

One solution being discussed is a pre-fabricated metal building that would serve as a dormitory-style jail annex, likely for simple misdemeanor offenders. It's a path that Duplin County has taken before, but abandoned in the mid-1990s.

Wallace explained that while it's not a cheap solution, it is a good temporary one if the county can find a plot of land.

"At this point, we're in the preliminary stages. It's not going to be inexpensive, but certainly it would be less expensive than building a new jail or adding onto the one we have now," he said.

Both of those options, though, have been discussed in recent years after the county completed a feasibility study on a new jail.

"That has been talked about, and they concluded there was a need," Wallace said. "But like anything, money is always an issue."

But if a solution to the immediate overcrowding problem is not soon found, Duplin runs the risk of having the state Department of Corrections close its jail.

"There's always the possibility the state could come in tomorrow, say the facility is inadequate and shut us down," he said. "We've been dealing with some form of overcrowding since I became sheriff five years ago, so I'm worried about the state inspector's patience."

What he's not worried about are the inmates themselves.

"It doesn't hurt my feelings that the jail is overcrowded," he said. "It doesn't bother me they're sleeping on the floor with an extra mat. We're not inhumane to them.

"What does worry me is when we've got so many inmates and only three jailers. It becomes a security issue."

Currently there are about 130 inmates in the 92-bed facility.

There were closer 160, but 20 have been sent to Sampson County at a cost of $50 a day and 10 to Pamlico County for free (after Duplin held some of that county's inmates several months ago).

"Those numbers are not going down. People are still coming into the facility and you normally don't have as many going out as you have coming in," Wallace said. "We're going to have to do something."

Part of the problem, he explained, is a slow court system with most of the inmates being held as they await either bond or trial -- a process that could take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of years depending on the charge.

But that's not the only cause.

Wallace also said he thinks the types of crimes being committed and better enforcement on the streets could be contributing factors.

In addition, about one-third of the inmate population are illegal immigrants -- though they were arrested on other crimes.

"It varies, but that's a pretty good average," Wallace said. "That's a lot for a county our size. They commit the same crimes white people do and black people do, so I'm not going to say they are the only reason we are overcrowded, but that plays a large role."

To help pay for that particular population, though, they are at least getting a little help from the federal government -- a $22,700 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Duplin was one of only 800 agencies nationwide to qualify for the assistance. Inmates cost the county about $65 a day.

"That helps, but it in no way fully compensates us for housing them," Wallace said.

He's also still awaiting word on another program to help deal with Duplin County's illegal immigrant population.

Earlier this year he applied for participation in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program that would allow six of his deputies and two of his jailers to be trained to place detainers on illegal immigrants already in or entering the Duplin County justice system. That application, he explained, is still under consideration, pending the availability of funding.

"I think it's going to happen. It's just a matter of how quickly," Wallace said.