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April 21, 2021

By Jessie Burchette
Salisbury Post
The head of the state’s jail inspection agency plans to attend Monday’s meeting of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to talk about “dangerous conditions” in the Rowan County Detention Center.
In a Feb. 21 letter, John Harkins, chief of the state’s jail and detention section, asked to meet with commissioners at their regular meeting about “dangerous conditions” that require “immediate actions.”
“These conditions cannot be allowed to continue,” he wrote.
That letter came two days after a state jail inspector noted multiple deficiencies at the Rowan County Detention Center, including inmates sleeping on the floor and blocking exits to cell blocks in a jail that is severely over capacity.
That inspection and Harkins’ letter prompted county commissioners to move the jail high on its discussion list as they began a two-day retreat Wednesday at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. Commissioners and top law enforcement officers talked without reaching a conclusion.
A project to add 48-beds is under way, and the county also rents up to 40 beds a day in Sampson County ó at $50 a day per bed.
But the Rowan County Detention Center is still nearly 100 inmates over capacity.
County commissioners are stuck between investing in a $35 million jail that won’t be ready for four years or coming up with some type of temporary fix.
The Detention Center has 162 beds. Once a new pod is completed and opened next year, the jail will have 210 beds.
But Sheriff George Wilhelm told commissioners the average daily count is running around 290, and on some days the population exceeds 310.
Jail Inspector Chris Wood cited the county for several deficiencies during a Feb. 19 inspection and gave the county until March 23 to submit a corrective action plan.
Wood found inmates were sleeping on the floors and blocking exits to the cell blocks. On the day he visited, the jail had 263 inmates ó 101 more than it’s supposed to hold.
Wood wrote that the county should be more aggressive in transferring inmates to other facilities. He also cited several other areas where the jail doesn’t comply, most of them related to overcrowding.
“We’re literally running out of floor space,” Sheriff’s Maj. Tim Bost said. Jail officials try to keep inmates from putting mattresses in exit areas, he said.Commissioner Jim Sides noted that many other counties across the state are in the same situation as Rowan.
“We are one of the worst in the state at this point,” Bost said.
Among the quick-fix possibilities are renting more bed space in other counties or building temporary jail space.
Officials said the county will pay $1.2 million this year to rent beds in Sampson County. If the county rents more, Rowan could spending $2.5 million a year ó nearly enough to pay debt service on a $35 million jail.
Wilhelm and Bost said several different types of temporary jails are available on the market, but they only last a few years.
Along with commissioners, Wilhelm said he doesn’t like paying millions in tax dollars to put prisoners in other counties’ jails.
Paul Bonsall, of Ware Bonsall Architects, told commissioners that getting support for building jails is tough. While communities like to build schools, they don’t like to build jails.
Arnold Chamberlain, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, noted that commissioners face a long lists of needs, including schools, but will be forced to build an expensive jail. Chamberlain said he almost wished a Superior Court judge or the state would order the county to build the jail.
Bost, who spent more than a decade overseeing the jail, projected that within nine years, the jail population will nearly double, reaching 428 inmates. He repeatedly cautioned that the figure could be much higher.
Wilhelm said he prefers building a new jail outside downtown Salisbury that would require less intense security but not minimum security.
The existing jail at the Justice Center would serve as a maximum security facility.
Wilhelm also said he would like to move the bulk of his department to a new location further south. Existing space in the Justice Center is overcrowded and doesn’t have room for keeping evidence or crime lab space.
Under his proposal, much of the current Sheriff’s Office space could be converted to court space, including offices for magistrates, probation and jail administration.
Wilhelm also noted that the county may want to consider moving the Emergency Operations Center and E-911 Center to a Sheriff’s Office facility, providing increased space and security.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or jburchette@salisburypost.com.

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