Jail laundry room violation might cost county $50,000
By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on October 28, 2007 2:00 AM
Prisoners jailed in Wayne County usually pass this door riding in the back of a deputy sheriff's cruiser, inside a sally port lined with razor wire.
But now the door is off limits to all prisoners and jail trustees. Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders said a state jail inspection resulted in an Oct. 18 cease and desist order for the jail's laundry room and storage area.
The problems? Combustible material -- plywood on walls and wooden shelves that store clothes and chemicals -- and a lack of a sprinkler or alarm system, Jail Capt. James Tadlock said.
The forced closure means Winders needs at least one more jail employee to do laundry and modify an undetermined off-site county building to do the daily wash, he said.
That might cost as much as $50,000, but the sheriff said that's better than the almost $100,000 it would cost to completely renovate the room.
So officials will be tearing all the shelves down and moving all property out of the room, returning the area to its original state, the sheriff said.
Winders said that was also the advice of County Manager Lee Smith.
Winders thinks state jail inspectors are more cautious since a 2002 fire in Mitchell County's jail that killed eight inmates.
"Now it looks like they're making a concerted effort ... to make sure they won't be held liable for anything that may have passed (inspection) before," he said.
N.C. Department of Health and Human Resources spokesman Jim Jones said the Mitchell County tragedy is surely on the mind of a jail inspector.
"We all remember that, don't we," Jones said.
But N.C. Chief Jail Inspector John Harkins said that incorrect procedure in converting the room was the reason for the order, although he was not sure when the room conversion took place.
Winders said the area has been used for laundry and storage for quite some time, and had been overlooked on previous inspections.
But Harkins said when the room was converted, required official plans were not submitted to the proper N.C. Department of Health and Human Resources oversight group.
"What happened was, they had what was originally designed to be a recreation area," Harkins said. "They turned it into a laundry and storage area."
Harkins said the jail would not necessarily be prohibited from using that area for storage and laundry, but plans need to be submitted formally.
"I'm not saying they can't use it in the manner they want to use, but they have to give us plans first, with the proper fire suppression systems in place," he said.
But Harkins added that it isn't uncommon to see jails struggling to find extra storage space.
"Jails do that all the time. They're always looking for storage," Harkins said. "Just like any business, I guess."
The jail captain said Wayne County's jail has a by-the-pound laundry deal with Cherry Hospital, which has a two-day turn-around time for the jail's laundry.
The time it takes to get uniforms back poses problems after the room's closure, because it also served as storage facility for clean uniforms, Tadlock said.
"So if you've got 250 inmates, in order to store it (uniforms), we'd need 600 outfits," Tadlock said.
Sheriff's Maj. Ray Smith said population at the jail is now about 220 inmates.
"We got as high as 267," Smith said, adding that the jail facility currently costs $3.4 million a year to operate.
Earlier this month, a consultant hired by county commissioners estimated Wayne County will need 510 prison beds by 2030.
Jail renovations would cost at least $44 million, according to estimates presented by consultants.
Winders said he has grown tired of armchair county planners suggesting tents, fences and old schoolhouses as possible jail locations.
"So many times we get asked 'Why don't we put inmates in tents and build a fence around them, like that sheriff in Arizona?'" Winders said.
The answer is that different states have different laws, the sheriff said.
"We've got to meet certain criteria," Winders said. "If you don't, they (jail inspectors) have the authority to shut the jail down."
What happens then? The state takes over jailing responsibilities, charging at least $65 per inmate per day or more, the sheriff said.
"You have no choice but to comply," Winders said. "Just like we got with this laundry room, it was a cease and desist order.
"That means you will stop using that right now. Period."
-- Staff Writer Matthew Whittle contributed to this report.
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