Commission looking at jail upgrades

By ED HOWELL
Posted 12/8/18

Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop said he hopes to bring up a project to bid in January to make major electronic upgrades at the Walker County Jail that should enhance …

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Commission looking at jail upgrades

Posted

Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop said he hopes to bring up a project to bid in January to make major electronic upgrades at the Walker County Jail that should enhance security. 

Bishop brought up the subject during Monday's commission meeting. 

"Hopefully by the next meeting (on Jan. 7) we will have a firm bid to come in and do the big stuff at that jail, which is substantial. We will be replacing all the systems, locks, cameras and boards - everything, just about. It is all obsolete and wore out." 

Bishop indicated he had worked closely on issues at the jail over the past three months, in cooperation with County Engineer Mike Short. 

"We've got a long way to go but it is going to make it safer for our employees" and the inmates, while also saving legal fees by preventing lawsuits, Bishop said. 

He noted the commission has allowed for the work to be done at the jail, as well as to make improvements at the courthouse. "I appreciate that. Hopefully we have spent their money proper and well," Bishop said.

Bishop made his remarks to the commission before the Alabama State Bureau of Investigation confirmed an inmate died at the jail on Wednesday, which is leading the state agency to conduct an investigation. Four inmate deaths have been reported at the jail this year, with one of those deaths occurring at Walker Baptist Medical Center. 

Needs at the jail have also been discussed in the wake of this 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. 

On Friday, Bishop said has already been underway with what is called "the boiler project," as a new water tank system needed to be installed after a leak in the current system that dates back to about 1977. Modernizing the system will also result in savings, he said, noting that system will roughly cost about $70,000 once completed.

The other work will involve  the boards, locks, cameras and such, which may cost at least $300,000 or $400,000, although he said he was not quite sure of the projected cost. "But I have no knowledge of that to yet," he said. "I've heard people talk." 

Bishop has obtained some input from Sheriff Jim Underwood and his staff, and plans are for Sheriff-elect Nick Smith, who takes office in January, to also give some input within the next month. He then hopes to bring a plan to the commission at one of their January meetings. 

"We're getting quotes. That will be run before the commission," Bishop said. 

Bishop said it will involve not only new cameras but additional cameras for monitoring, offering more security for both jailers and inmates. 

"It didn't have cameras in a lot of areas that it should have had, according to the people who work there," Bishop said. "This is going to make everyone safer, the officers and the prisoners."

In addition, the current board system that remotely opens cell doors and other systems is out of date. It will be replaced with new electronics.

"That's the biggest cost down there," he said. "They can them boards, and it is the electronic computers that run those cells and their doors. They are outdated and need to be replaced. You can't just replaced part of it, according to the people we met and talked with. You pretty much have to do it all, especially with the new locks they recommend, because the old locks are outdated and worn out."

Prisoners have also found ways to get around the locks, making it necessary to go the state-of-the-art locks other jails are going to, he said. 

"It's a modern update of the electronics in that jail is what it is," he said. 

Funds are coming from a combination of jail and capital improvement funds, Bishop said, adding he wants to do the work as quickly as possible. 

Underwood has called for more funding for his office, to the point he at one time sued the commission. He said the sheriff's budget was once $5.4 million but had been reduced to about $5 million. The commission increased the budget 2.5 percent for Fiscal 2019, to nearly $5.2 million. 

He said in an interview in July the jail is  badly in need of repairs, with one estimate in the last couple of years calling for $2 million in needed repairs. Underwood said the county commission needed to come up with the funding for the repairs.

“The jail is owned by the county commission,” he said at the time, noting something that Bishop agreed with Friday.

“It is my job to make sure the people are here and the jail is running," Underwood said. "It is a monster of a building. Right now, with all the repairs it is a money pit due to not being kept up.”

The sheriff said he does spend money from his discretionary funds on jail items, such as 600 new uniforms he recently bought for the prisoners and mattresses and sheets needed due to the jail being over capacity much of the time. The discretionary funds come from monies obtained from duties such as serving papers and granting pistol permits.

Smith said in July the Walker County Jail is in bad shape and that revenue coming from video visitation and e-cigarettes should be going back into the jail. "The money the jail makes should go right back into the jail to fix the problems," he said.