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Controversy Over Beaufort County Jail

The 40 year old Beaufort County jail is the center of a debate.  Some say the facility is in adequate shape and needs little repair.  Others say the jail is unsafe for staff and inmates and a new one needs to be built.  

For the past two weeks, the cells of the Beaufort County jail have been empty.  It’s because of electrical outages on June 6th and June 8th, the result of a newly installed laundry dryer system.  Beaufort County Sheriff Alan Jordan most of the 70 inmates that were evacuated were placed in Bertie County Correctional Institution, with the rest going to local jails in Pitt and Pamlico Counties.

“The smell of smoke and the appearance of smoke just highlighted the issues we have with safety in terms of trying to evacuate the jail in emergency conditions.”

The process of moving inmates has cost taxpayers over 50,000 dollars so far and it could be a week or more before the inmates are transferred back to the Beaufort County jail.   This incident has caused a major disagreement to resurface between the Sheriff and the some of the County’s Commissioners over the conditions at the prison, and whether a new one should be built.

“It’s my job to protect the public’s money, not put prisoners in plush conditions.”

Beaufort County Commissioner Hood Richardson is among the camp that believes conditions at the jail are safe and adequate. 

“The controversy behind this whole issue is the desire of some people to build a new jail at the cost of in excess of 20 million dollars.”

Others, including Sheriff Alan Jordan argue time and use has caused the facility to fall into disrepair and become functionally outdated. 

“With the help of the county commissioners, who I’ve always tried to give credit to where credit is deserved, we’ve managed to put bandages on wounds and keep our head above water so to speak in that facility so to speak. But it’s been my contention since I’ve been sheriff and even before I was sheriff, while I was the chief deputy here that we need to be making substantive progress towards building a new facility that will serve citizens of this county safely well into the future.”

The Beaufort County jail was built in the 1970’s and houses up to 85 inmates.  When asked about repairs that need to be made to make the facility safe, Sheriff Jordan didn’t offer any specifics.  He did tell me the problems aren’t just limited to electrical and plumbing issues.

“The jail is constructed in what’s called a liner fashion. That is they’re cell blocks that are isolated from view.  It makes it very hard to supervise the inmates, you don’t have line of sight of inmates. It enhances the risk of assault not only inmate on inmate, but inmate on officer.”

The design of the underground jail brings up another issue, there’s no room for a second expansion if needed.  A lawsuit in the early 1980’s ordered the first expansion because of overcrowding. 

“with that expansion, we lost all of our rooms for support functions such as meal preparation, sick hall, storage, trash disposal, attorney client visits, so we have to try to find spaces and be very imaginative and innovative in how to use what space we have.”

Sheriff Jordan says the Beaufort County jail, which is located two blocks from the Pamlico River in the basement of the Washington Courthouse is also susceptible to flooding.  Each time there’s a major rain event, he says prisoners have to be evacuated as a precautionary measure. 

“I think it’s better in the long run rather than pouring money into one that ultimately at some point we’re going to have to be forced to build a new one and I hope the catalyst for that isn’t someone being injured or killed in this facility.”

Commissioner Richardson says the sheriff is using the flooding issue as an excuse.

“The floor and the ground of the jail is right at the base flood elevation which FEMA has determined the jail has never been flooded. He wants to keep using this, he’s just crying wolf.”

Commissioner Richardson and Sheriff Jordan have opposing ideas over the future of the jail.  Commissioner Richardson admits the jail could use some updates, but believes it’s safe for the staff and for inmates.  Last month, he said state inspectors did their bi-annual sweep of the facility and found no major problems.

“We comply with their request and their defects that they find each time they come by, like last time there were showers that hadn’t been repaired in several weeks they had hot water and couldn’t turn the water off. The commissioners were not aware of this, we rely on the Sheriff to do this and what we’ve found is that the Sheriff is dragging his feet in keeping the jail in condition for prisoners under the idea that if it gets bad enough, maybe he’ll get a new jail.”

Richardson says the problem is not in making repairs to the facility, he says the problem is in supervising the Sheriff.

“I have the distinction as County Commissioner of having been thrown out of the jail twice in two days because I was trying to see what the defects were in the jail.  The sheriff doesn’t want the public to know how good of condition the jail is in.”

Sheriff Jordan maintains that the facility has problems that state inspectors weren’t able to find.

“They’re not chasing down electrical problems, they’re not opening access panels and crawling in looking at plumbing very deep in the bowels of the jail, they’re not doing those types of things, they’re walking around looking at safety issues that are easily seen.”

As for the inmates date of return, Beaufort County Sheriff Alan Jordan hopes the jail can be repopulated sooner rather than later.

“It’s a great additional burden to my staff in terms of transportation and logistics. It’s also a great burden on the tax payers in the county in terms of cost.”

A court order issued by Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons on June 13th states that the prisoners can return to the facility when it’s brought back to a “reasonably safe condition on a temporary basis, given the age and overall condition of the facility, to be determined by the Court.”  Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.