Understaffed, overcrowded and with constant maintenance issues, the Charles B. Webster Detention Center in Augusta is having serious problems.
That was the message elected officials and the media heard on a tour Wednesday of the county jail. The tour was led by Sheriff Richard Roundtree and Capt. Charles Mitchell III of the detention center.
With a post-COVID backup of the courts, a facility designed to hold people awaiting trail or serving brief sentences has become more akin to a prison, Roundtree said. And the population of about 1,200 is several hundred over what the detention center should be holding.
“We’re averaging four years an inmate. We have one inmate who’s been here six years,” Roundtree said.
Among the issues local officials saw on the tour included a display of about a dozen confiscated improvised weapons confiscated, wrecked lights and phones, doors on individual cells with destroyed locks or hinges knocked askew, and spiderweb cracks in windows.
Commissioners Catherine Smith McKnight, who chairs the public safety committee, Jordan Johnson and Tony Lewis joined Mayor Garnett Johnson on the tour.
“I thought it would be beneficial for not only the commission but also the media to come take a look at some of the challenges that are being faced with housing more inmates than this facility was designed to hold,” Johnson told the Chronicle after the tour. “… It’s been eye opening to actually put eyes to the safety concerns as I mentioned not only to the incarcerated but also to those who work here.”
Eyes on safety concerns
As the tour entered F Pod, there was a distinct smell a bit like burnt paper.
“What you’re smelling is K2. It’s our biggest problem,” Mitchell said, noting K2 is a synthetic marijuana.
Each pod had a central area, around which were several individual blocks of cells locked behind their own door. Within each block was a common area, showers, phones, and two stories of cells. In the E block, two of the three phones were smashed.
While the entrance block itself locked, the locks on the individual cell doors were broken. Cell E-2, which had two residents, was opened for the tour — the overhead light had been completely destroyed, and there were cracks in the glass of the door.
“This is not safe,” said Derrick Williams, one of the residents of an adjacent cell.
In G Pod, the glass separating the E block from the central area had a series of cracks that looked like bullet impacts, and a shower door was missing.
Outside the pods, the tour passed single-occupancy cells for holding people with mental health problems, bare concrete cells with mattresses on the floor. Some cells had toilets and sinks, but some had neither. In those, the occupants just had a drain in the floor for toilets, Mitchell said, to prevent cells being flooded.
Addressing the problems
Following the tour, Roundtree said his office works to release everyone they can. Currently there are just about 55 people in the jail being held for misdemeanor charges or serving misdemeanor sentences, he said. The rest are facing felony charges in a backlogged court system — 85 facing murder charges.
Hiring is another challenge. Roundtree wants 40 deputies per shift but is averaging 19. With overtime and requiring everyone in the sheriff’s office to pick up one extra shift at the jail each month, whether or not they are assigned to the jail, he can get 28-30 people on a shift.
Ron Lampkin, the interim director of Central Services, also joined the tour. His department is responsible for making repairs at the jail, and he estimates it takes about $400,000 to fix the locks in one pod. Beyond that, they are working steadily to replace the glass with plexiglass, replacing sprinkler heads, fixing HVAC and heating issues, working on showers and plumbing issues and more.
“You’re looking at $5-10 million just to get it in order,” he told commissioners after the tour. “… As fast as we can get one thing fixed, you have another situation.”
Lampkin told the Chronicle he thinks he spends about $2-3 million annually on maintenance at the jail. Roundtree wants to add another pod, which would cost about $38 million, something he said he began asking for eight years ago.
McKnight is backing the construction of a new pod, she told the Chronicle.
“It’s overcrowding, the place needs funding,” she said. “… We have got to fund the money.”
Commissioner Johnson said that the issue extends beyond the jail itself to trying to keep people from going to jail in the first place.
“I think the conversation around this tour should be centered around how do we address the need for systemic change in our criminal justice system while also weighing the best option to fund the sheriff’s request,” he said. “Because certainly there’s a need, and we don’t want to turn our eyes to that.”
This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Commissioners tour Augusta jail, see maintenance, overcrowding issues