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Monday November 24th 2014

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County tries to block Jail Study from being released

Jail Bars
There is a budget battle about to break out between interim County Administrator George Touart and Sheriff David Morgan. The fight is inevitable.

This first volley has been over the Escambia County Jail—which is severely understaffed according to the county’s consultants National Center for State Courts (NCSC) and Justice Concepts Incorporated (JCI).

The Escambia County Board of Commissioners commissioned a study of jail operations in February 2008, when Ron McNesby was sheriff and Bob McLaughlin was the county administrator. The intent of the study was to determine if the county jail should be moved out of the control of the Sheriff’s Office, where it had been since April 1994.

The county jail was overflowing. Three years earlier the inmate count in Escambia County hit a record high, according to newspaper reports, of 2,039—far exceeding the jail capacity of 1,422. The count had declined some since then, but was still above the capacity.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the jail, just weeks after David Morgan was sworn in as the new sheriff. (DOJ has yet to issue a final report.)

The initial completion date for the $140,000 report was Sept. 30, 2008. However, a change order was generated in October 2008 for $102,362 for a more in-depth analysis and to also look at pre-trial organization.

JCI issued a two-part report. The first part focused on key functional areas of jail operations and a draft was sent to the county on Oct. 10, 2010.

The consultants found several serious structural deficiencies in the Main Jail and the Central Book and Detention facility. The Jail was built in early 1980s to handle 500 inmates. In December 1997, County Commission approved a $15-million expansion that renovated the old University Hospital to handle the soaring inmate population that had jumped from 1,100 in 1990 to 1,400 by 1997. At the time, the county had 1,280 total beds in the mail jail, jail annex and road camp. The hospital building gave the county 513 more beds.

The JCI and NCSC found in 2009 that the jail was in much need of renovation and the staffing was inadequate. However, the consultants praised the Sheriff’s Office administration of the facility.

“The quality of administration of the Jail is among the best,” wrote Dr. Allen Beck, JCI analyst. “We found the Jail Commander to be well-informed, able to inspire staff to grow and change, capable of making quality decisions, and concerned about improvement. Similarly, we found other members of the administrative staff and operational supervisors to be dedicated and competent.”

Part 2 went into more detail about the staffing needs of the jail. The consultants had met with the audit team from the Justice Department and they wrote in their Executive Summary that DOJ would be accepting JCI’s staffing recommendations.

JCI concluded that the Jail was operating only about three-fourths of its needed staff. The analysis disclosed that 103 more certified detention staff and 15 more civilian staff are needed. The consultants said that the understaffing has been a problem for many years and that County budget austerity over the years had not allowed the hiring of the needed number of staff.

“This finding about the jail being understaffed is not a new issue,” said Beck. “The previous sheriff (McNesby) knew that the jail was understaffed. Thus, the problem has existed for a number of years.”

The final report by NCSC and JCI was sent to the county on March 2011. Sheriff Morgan only recently learned about the final report and obtained a copy of it through a public record request.

The county had disputed in 2011 some of the findings and refused to pay the balance due the consultants. The county didn’t dispute the staffing conclusion. No, the county was upset over conclusions and recommendation made about its Pretrial Services. Two years later, the county still hadn’t paid the consultants.

On March 14, 2013, Sheriff Morgan wrote Touart about the report, which he believed put both the Board of County Commissioners and him on notice “that there are significant deficiencies in Jail staffing and in the Jail physical plant.”

“We have a duty to take appropriate action,” wrote Morgan, “Failure to do could be construed as deliberate indifference to the consequences and could place the County and Sheriff in serious legal jeopardy.”

He said the understaffing must be rectified. “Squarely confronting this problem is no longer in the ‘nice to have’ category,” he wrote. “Rather, it is imperative that we take action.”

At Public Safety Coordinating Council Meeting on March 20, Sheriff Morgan passed out copies of the report to the group—which included Commissioner Grover Robinson, Touart, Judge Terry Terrell, State Attorney Bill Eddins, County Corrections Director Gordon Pike, County Clerk Pam Childers and others.

Touart had no immediate answer as to why the consultants hadn’t been paid the balance due them. He didn’t seem worried about a legal liability regarding the staffing at the jail.

“This has been an issue in every county where I’ve worked,” said Touart.

On April 3, Sheriff Morgan sent Touart a letter asking that the county pay the consultants, something he believed the county administrator had committed to doing at the Public Safety meeting. He was upset that the interim county administrator had not authorized that the check be cut.

“I will be direct. There are no ‘material errors’ in this report,” Morgan told Touart. “The researcher’s only error was in identifying clearly and accurately many longstanding issues and problems within the Escambia County Detention System.”

He reiterated his position that the county must take action on the jail and the staffing to “mitigate any future legal liability for issues arising within the facilities.”

Touart responded on April 12 to Sheriff Morgan saying that his letter reflected “several misconceptions about the nature and purpose of the study and contains misrepresentation as to what I said at the Public Safety Council meeting.”

He said the county would not process and make final payment until JCI and NCSC correct what his staff believed to be “significant and material deficiencies” regarding County Pretrial Services, headed by Pike, in their report. Touart did not dispute the consultant’s findings regarding the jail.

So the county didn’t get what it wanted—a report that could have been used to justify taking the jail away from the Sheriff. David Morgan’s election and the analysis by independent third parties shot holes in that plan.

Instead the report praised the Sheriff Morgan’s management team and criticized county operations for its part of the criminal justice system, Pretrial Services.

Therefore, the county won’t pay for the report. Instead the intent appears to be to block it being released and keeping the public from learning the true conditions of the jail.