Commission OKs $900,000 of jail work

By ED HOWELL
Posted 1/24/19

The Walker County Commission voted Tuesday night for a contract to spend roughly $850,000 to $900,000 from the the Jail Fund to address various safety needs, such as new locks, at the Walker County …

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Commission OKs $900,000 of jail work

Posted

The Walker County Commission voted Tuesday night for a contract to spend roughly $850,000 to $900,000 from the the Jail Fund to address various safety needs, such as new locks, at the Walker County Jail. 

Chairman Jerry Bishop said after the meeting he hoped to complete the repairs by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, while County Engineer Mike Short said it may take six to eight months to complete, depending when the locks come in. Officials indicated the work would be done in phases. 

The action capped a weeklong series of events, including Sheriff Nick Smith taking office and a sweep of the county jail that revealed the scope of problems in the jail, including graffiti, toilets in disrepair and light problems. 

Four inmate deaths were reported at the jail last year, with one of those deaths occurring at Walker Baptist Medical Center. Needs at the jail were discussed in the wake of last year's sheriff's election and in the aftermath of a nationally reported jail break in 2017, where a dozen people escaped and were eventually recaptured. 

Bishop has been looking at the security problems, such as cell locks and control boards in disrepair, and the need for more cameras. Bishop indicated Tuesday he had worked closely on issues at the jail over the past five months, in cooperation with County Engineer Mike Short. 

Smith was not at the meeting, as he was meeting with the Sipsey Town Council at the same time. Smith and the council reached a tentative agreement to allow a sheriff substation at the town's former police station, although the commission will have to approve it later. 

At the commission meeting, Bishop said the jail is 26 years old. "Very little maintenance has ever been done on it," he said, noting work is about to be made to "the whole jail for security repairs and safety, and less lawsuits, and maybe even to keep the feds out," he said. 

"It's not a cheap issue, but it is something that has got to be done," he added.

Bishop said he and Smith had met earlier in the day to give input on how to make the repairs.

"It's going to be all new locks on the jail system, because they are outdated and worn," he said. Officials said last week while dorm areas were secure, locks on the various cells inside the dorms were not working in about 12 of the 16 dorms, allowing inmates to roam within the dorms.

"When you can't lock them up, they are going to continue to tear up anything they can get a hold of," Bishop told commissioners, saying the locks are key to the new work. 

At one point, Bishop said, "It's just not been kept up, gentlemen, and I'm not blaming nobody. It's kind of like these bond issues. It didn't happen yesterday. It's been going on a good while. But there was no money. The last couple of years, it has started to build up."

He said if the county waits "until we get a major federal lawsuit, it will cost us a lot more than this." County Attorney Richard Fikes said he agreed, adding, "You're actually subject to a lawsuit when the conditions are right." Willams said the project would pay for itself in lack of lawsuits, and Davis agreed the county could get sued if the work is not done. 

"It is in significant disrepair," Davis said, saying maintenance has not been kept up.

Davis noted the commission has had five new pending lawsuits in the past year. Fikes said those suits may have $100,000 caps. However, Fikes said federal lawsuits might be different. "You're not looking at a liability claim if that happens. You're looking at civil rights and things like that," Fikes said. 

Bishop said there would be a large increase in the number of cameras, although they would not be placed inside individual jails due to civil rights. 

"From 20-something cameras, we're going to 90-something," Bishop said, as well as a new control center. He said the cost would roughly be between $850,000 to $900,000. 

After the meeting, Bishop declined to release documents on the breakdown of the costs and the work, as he said details were still being worked out. He said more details would be released later. 

District 3 Commissioner Ralph Williams asked during the meeting if a plan had been developed how the work would be spread out. "Yeah," Bishop said. 

"I'm in total agreement" with the plan, Williams, a former sheriff's investigator, said. "This is something that fell in our lap and it's been let go for so many years. We don't have any choice. I know the cost is enormous. But compared to federal lawsuits, this amount won't seem like very much if these problems are not addressed in the jail for the safety of the officers working in there and for the inmates." 

Bishop said while inmates are in jail to be punished, "they don't need to be beat up, their teeth knocked out, their head banged — inhumane treatment to them. Plus, the safety of our officers. We have to have that, too. And the safety to our citizens if they have another jail break." 

He said as it will take longer to get the locks ready to the county's specifications, Smith has decided to go first with the cameras. "We can get those and get started in two or three weeks," Bishop said. "That will keep security and protect more people, because you are going to know what is going on." 

The control boards are also to be replaced, with one costing $160,000 to replace them. "It opens those cell doors and closes them," he said. "Of course, some of them (currently) won't lock anyway." 

Bishop noted in the wake of last week's jail sweep, reports from District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis, who observed, and Smith, as well as the resulting coverage in the Daily Mountain Eagle, helped to bring attention to some issues at the jail. 

"I've spent some nights waking up at 3 o'clock in the morning trying to figure out how to do this," Bishop said. "There ain't but one way to do it, and that's to fix it." 

He said he wanted cooperation from the commission, and that the faster it voted on the project, the faster it could be started. 

Bishop said the project will not disrupt the current jail budget, as the work is not in the budget. "This is jail repair and upkeep," using a fund that has been built up. "We brought an auditor in here and he found some of it," he said. "We're going to get more and that's the only reason we can fix it. (The fund) is supposed to be spent on the jail."

In response to a question from District 4 Commissioner Steven Aderholt, the work can be done over time as more money comes into the Jail Fund, with money left over in the fund for whatever needs arise. In answer to a question from District 2 Commissioner Jeff Burrough, Bishop said the county has three-quarters of the funding in hand. No funds are expected to be taken from roads or other projects. 

Painting, plumbing, light fixtures and other non-safety issues will not be addressed by these funds, Davis said. After the meeting, he said county crews and inmates should be able to do some of that work to save costs. 

Former part-time county worker Randy Dodd, who recently went to work for Jefferson County and helped the county on financial matters for several months, said during the meeting, "There is money available for this. This will be paid for out of the Jail Fund, which is a restricted fund" numbered Fund 107 on reports. "The revenue going into that fund is restricted to jail expenditures. In rough numbers the last time I looked at it, there was about $600,000 cash balance in that fund. You average over a yearly period about $50,000 a month in revenue. By the time the project is completed, there will be enough revenue that comes in that covers what Mr. Bishop has outlined." 

Davis and Bishop said some of the funds were used at one time to pay off the construction cost of the jail. Commissioners have indicated the jail was paid off about a couple of years ago.

The county is getting $720,000 a year going into the fund, Davis said. 

Aderholt noted during the meeting that Johnson Controls in Hoover, which has presented the proposal, also presented financing options, but Bishop felt the interest would be more "than what we are getting for our money" through CDs.

Bishop said Johnson already has a contract with the state of Alabama. "They are our best estimate," he said. "They do a lot of stuff in the jails and prisons." He has asked Johnson to expedite the process with the locks. 

After the meeting, Bishop said new locks are needed in all but the D Block area. The jail also has to be rewired. 

"It has the new switches on it, but it doesn't have the right wires going to it. It is an AC/DC thing," he said. 

Davis noted after the meeting the control system dates back to the construction of the jail, and the inmates have damaged locks without being replaced. The new locks will make it more difficult for inmates to get access to the locks. "There are expensive and there are 70 of them that are needed," he said. 

Davis, who has been heavily involved in the county's budget, said he was in agreement with other commissioners it would be best to pay for it in stages instead of get financing. 

On Wednesday, Davis explained that the jail fund is made up of revenue from court fees and a tobacco tax. 

As for those on social media saying that the county has said it did not have funds but now has cash, Davis said a combination of factors have put the county in good position for helping the jail, if not roads and other needs. 

"We've always said there has not been a funding problem for that jail. It has been a management problem," he said. 

The more pressing financial problems have been outside the sheriff and jail areas of the budget to make room for a $1.5 million debt payment that began last year, he said. That led to budget cuts and streamlining operations, including a 5 percent cut to the jail and Sheriff's Office. 

Also, he noted overall revenue for the county was up last year and is up currently, and again pointed out the fund's restrictive nature and the fact the jail was paid off. 

As for the status of whether the Johnson Controls offer was a bid, Davis passed on a text from Short explaining it was not officially a bid, but that the county will qualify under a cooperative. 

"We did check prices/proposals with other vendors and they (Johnson) seemed to be the most qualified and most reasonably priced," Short wrote. "The county will actually join a purchasing cooperative (NCPA) and do business in that manner. (Johnson) is a member of the cooperative and their prices are the same for other governmental entities that become members of said cooperative."