Crime

What’s next for Muscogee County Jail? More resources needed for mentally ill, sheriff says

Take a look at latest Muscogee County Jail dorm renovations

Commander Larry Mitchell, warden of the Muscogee County Jail, and Lieutenant John Thomas talk on Thursday, July 25, 2019, about the renovations happening in the Muscogee County Jail to prevent leaks and flooding.
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Commander Larry Mitchell, warden of the Muscogee County Jail, and Lieutenant John Thomas talk on Thursday, July 25, 2019, about the renovations happening in the Muscogee County Jail to prevent leaks and flooding.

The Muscogee County Jail is now the largest mental hospital in Columbus, housing around 450 inmates diagnosed with some mental illness.

That puts it beyond West Central Georgia Regional Hospital on Schatulga Road, which has around 200 beds, said Judge Gil McBride, chief judge of the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit.

The result is the jail now is not just a secure place to put those accused of the county’s most violent crimes, but a treatment facility for people who run afoul of the law because of their illness.

“It’s surprising to me that running a jail is very much like running a hospital,” Sheriff Donna Tompkins said in an interview Wednesday. The sheriff’s office runs the county jail.

Like a hospital, the jail needs not only enough staff to operate and secure it — 150 to 200 workers a day — but adequate bed space, showers, kitchen, laundry, clinic, backup generator, plus separate rooms for those who must constantly be monitored.

And it all has to be cleaned and repaired, over and over.

Crowded

With a capacity of 1,069, the jail on Wednesday had 1,170, Tompkins said. “That’s actually down,” she added. The most overcrowded she recalls it during her term is 1,214.

The day she took office in 2017, it was 995, she said.

The population fluctuates, but lately it has increased even with jail and court programs aimed at getting misdemeanor offenders out of the system, and at resolving the simplest cases first.

Those programs are working, court officials say, closing around 25-27% of all the Superior Court criminal cases here. But lately the jail has been deluged with new inmates: 10,402 went through the complex in 2017, and 12,954 in 2018, the sheriff said.

Among those were hundreds of gang members, as the jail is estimated to house around 400, with 30 a month coming through. On Wednesday, it also housed 72 murder suspects, and on given day it may have up to 85 inmates so mentally ill they can’t safely be around others, Tompkins said.

Expanding the jail would allow her to focus a wing on treating the mentally ill, with space for New Horizons’ mental health workers, she said.

As previously proposed, the expansion would be on the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street, now occupied by a county jail built in 1939, and long slated for demolition.

It is unfit for habitation, the U.S. Justice Department decided decades ago, and it has sat idle ever since, used only for storage.

With up to 200,000 square feet, the site may accommodate 600 beds, Tompkins said, adding the county is going to have to deal with the mental health issue the state has left to it:

“The state has dumped all the mentally ill back in the counties,” she said. “I believe we’re at a place where I don’t think the state is going to build that.”

Judge McBride said other branches of government have to decide on capital improvements, but taxpayers one way or another will pay for treating mental illness, either in county jails or state hospitals.

Funding expansion

Keeping suspected murderers, gangsters and dangerously ill inmates apart is a challenge, in an aging complex that requires constant maintenance.

So Tompkins wants city leaders to revisit expanding the jail, as proposed in a 2008 sales tax referendum that pledged 70% of its revenue to funding public safety needs and 30% to infrastructure.

Because the tax is for government operations, and not for capital projects like a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), it does not expire, so consumers still are paying it. The tax raises around $35 million a year.

City leaders now are proposing another sales tax for capital projects, to fund a new city office building and a separate judicial center for the courts, but that would not include the jail.

Voters might object to being asked to pay for something twice.

“That would be my concern,” Mayor Skip Henderson said last week. The mayor and council will ask voters what they want the next sales tax to fund, he said, and that opens the floor to any proposal, but the funding mechanism for jail expansion remains in place.

Whether city leaders would agree to that depends on the need, he said: “I think we’d have to look at the whole scope of the project.”

City Manager Isaiah Hugley agreed that the sales tax money’s still coming in. The city could reassess the jail’s needs, and if council agreed, issue bonds for an expansion, paying interest with the sales tax, he said.

But it’s up to Tompkins to assess her needs, and approach council, the mayor and city manager said. The jail expansion, priced at $31 million in 2009, was set aside when the inmate population dropped and city leaders deemed it unnecessary.

The facilities

The 1939 building is the only unused jail space in the county complex.

The sheriff just renovated and reopened the 19th century Columbus Stockade, a two-story brick building so sturdy it still serves its Victorian purpose, housing 110 inmates considered “trusties” who safely can serve on work details.

Though it’s a relic from another era, known for the 1920s folk song “Columbus Stockade Blues,” the Stockade remains more serviceable than the 1939 jail. And it was renovated more easily than a jail addition built in 2002, called the South Tower, which now needs more repair than the jail’s North Tower, built in 1984.

Those are the odd juxtapositions in the hodgepodge of structures within the complex bordered by Sixth and Eighth Avenues and Ninth and 10th Streets.

Tompkins said the North Tower holds 303 inmates and the South Tower 736. She also has space for around 20 in a ground-floor annex and 13 on suicide watch near the jail’s booking area, she said.

That’s another reason she’d like a wing devoted to mental health, she said: “I would love to have something completely away from there, so that the people coming in and the people going out are not going through all that.”

Renovating the Stockade allowed more space for shifting inmates around while the South Tower was repaired, an ongoing project that including the Stockade work is expected to cost about $417,000.

The jail has had many repair projects lately, having replaced a backup generator for $800,000 and a kitchen floor for $300,000, and having fixed an on-demand water heating system that wasn’t heating the water enough to kill bacteria in the laundry.

In the South Tower, dorms are being renovated one at a time, each taking around two weeks. The major issue was the showers, where water leaked through the tiles, rotted out the floor and then dripped into the showers on the floors below.

Now all those showers have to be ripped out and redone, waterproofed with an epoxy seal that goes on pink and turns red as it dries, Sheriff’s Lt. John Thomas explained Thursday while showing an 18-man dorm under renovation.

He and Commander Larry Mitchell, the jail warden, said the repairs are starting at the fourth floor, the top of the South Tower, and working down from there. While the showers are under repair, the cells are being cleaned and repainted. The project’s expected to take 300 days.

That won’t be the end of the repair work, in a complex that’s in use all the time and often damaged by its occupants.

“Inmates can tear up a steel ball,” Tompkins said: They flood cells and flush weapons and other contraband down the toilet, and damage light fixtures.

When the jail’s overcrowded, the overflow is distributed so that in some areas, where eight dorms each are designed to hold 40 inmates, each dorm has five more in cots on the floor, the sheriff said. Other dorms have different capacities.

Alternatives

The sheriff’s office is using some alternatives to incarceration, when it can. It can release some misdemeanor offenders — such as those accused of misdemeanor marijuana possession — on their own recognizance, meaning they don’t have to pay a bond, only promise to show up for court.

The sheriff also has a pretrial release program in which inmates who qualify are monitored regularly while they’re out of jail, with deputies checking on them. Around 80 are in that program now, the sheriff said.

While the sheriff deals with the inmates, the courts deal with their cases.

In response to jail overcrowding and case backlogs, the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit in 2015 started a program called “Rapid Resolution,” to clear the simplest cases in which defendants were willing to negotiate a plea.

Judge McBride said it was an idea born of periodic meetings he began having to discuss the jail. Those attending included prosecutors, defense attorneys, the sheriff and local organizations such as the NAACP.

The district attorney and the public defender’s office each devoted two attorneys to handle cases recommended to them for quick plea negotiations.

District Attorney Julia Slater said it has been a success, resolving 83% of the cases recommended to it. In mid-May, when last she checked, it had closed 2,602 cases in all, and had resolved 27% of all Superior Court criminal cases in the years 2016-2018, she said.

That cut the caseload on other prosecutors, said Slater, who has 29 in all. Those handling violent crimes have a caseload of about 160 each; the property and drug-crimes prosecutors have up to 350, she said.

Those prosecuting violent crimes have fewer because those cases are more complicated, and more often go to trial, she said.

Judge McBride said reducing the overall number of cases by just 25% is a “huge return” on the investment, in light of how few lawyers are devoted to Rapid Resolution.

But with the increasing influx of new cases coming into the jail, Rapid Resolution could be at risk of “maxing out,” unless the government adds more court resources, meaning more attorneys to deal with the caseload, said Steve Craft of Columbus’ public defender’s office. It has 22 attorneys on staff.

Craft said the reason the jail’s getting more inmates is no mystery: Police interactions with the public are up, as the department focuses on crime-suppression efforts that saturate problem areas with officers hunting for suspects with outstanding warrants.

Inevitably, those officers encounter others they aren’t looking for, people with probation violations or other allegations, Craft said.

Also more minor traffic violations result in arrests: Police are using “tag readers,” computer systems on patrol cars that automatically scan tags and alert officers when a tag is expired or a vehicle uninsured. That prompts a traffic stop that can lead to an arrest for drug possession or probation violation.

One thing authorities agree on is this: As pretrial release, own-recognizance bonds and Rapid Resolution remove nonviolent offenders from the jail population, one result is the inmates left behind are the most dangerous.

“We’ve topped out,” Tompkins said of her efforts to relieve overcrowding. “And the population is still where it is, and we’ve gone from 60 to 70 and now 72 people here in jail for murder, so obviously what we’re being left with are the people with the most charges, or the most violent.

“You can’t let them go.”

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