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No easy solutions for Escambia's old, deteriorating, overcrowded jail

Escambia County's old corrections facility has become the center of attention due to complaints about conditions.
File photo
Escambia County's old corrections facility has become the center of attention due to complaints about conditions.

Escambia County Commissioners are moving forward with plans for dealing with deteriorating conditions at the old county jail, with their short-term priority focused on finding new temporary accommodations for the inmates still housed there.

The momentum to do something —sooner rather than later — has been building for the past month when Commission Chairman Jeff Bergosh reported that his office had been getting complaints about conditions at the jail.

“I saw what I saw when I went in there,” said Bergosh in reference to what he found during a recent tour.

At the board’s Committee of the Whole meeting on March 10, described deplorable conditions in overcrowded cells.

“It (cell) was designed for one person. Then, they added a second bunk. Then, they added what they call “boats” on the floor. And, then the toilets are overflowing. And, then you’ve got human beings sleeping on the floor next to overflowing toilets.”

In addition to a leaky roof, mold and rusted electrical panels, Bergosh said the conditions were “unacceptable” and he described them as “inhumane” and “Third-World.”

Bergosh also wrote about conditions at the old jail and shared photos on his Blog.

The county currently has about $9 million budgeted for repairs to the aging facility, which was built in 1981, although estimates suggest at least 6 times that amount would be needed to correct all of the building’s issues. For Bergosh, that discussion is a non-starter.

“I don’t think we need to spend another dime on that thing. I’d like to introduce it to the wrecking ball,” he declared.

Last year, the county opened a new jail building that cost about $144 million. It sits adjacent to the original facility and housing low-to-medium-security inmates.

Designed for expansion, a second phase would cost an estimated $130 million.

That’s a long-term solution.

At this week’s affordable housing groundbreaking, Commissioner Lumon May reiterated his call to ramp up efforts to find more impactful long-term solutions that would reduce the need for inmate beds by preventing incarceration, in the first place, in cases where appropriate.

“I mean we can never build enough jails to incarcerate. So, we need to have a holistic look at what are we doing in day reporting, what are we doing in probations, and what are we doing in crime prevention,” he said for starters.

“How do we spend more money building homes and youth programs, rather than spending 70% of our budget on law enforcement and jails?”

There are also concerns among commissioners about the length of incarceration for many at the jail. The pandemic is contributing to a back-log in the courts that has kept over 100 inmates in the Escambia County jail for over a year, with many waiting in the jail for trial for as many as four years.

Since Bergosh got the ball rolling on the jail issue last month, the county has begun to reduce the more high-security population in the old jail, by moving those inmates to other facilities.

“Since the Committee of the Whole (meeting), 259/260 inmates have been moved. There are approximately 400 inmates still in the old jail,” stated County Administrator Wes Moreno, providing an update at Thursday’s regular board meeting.

He said they’ve pulled back on the idea of temporary housing trailers as a short-term housing solution.

Instead, the county putting out a Request for Letters of Interest for a consultant, who is a trained security engineer to focus on retrofitting two existing county-owned properties.

“That security engineer will design the hardening of the Fairfield Annex, where we feel we can house 400, maybe a little more than 400 inmates,” Moreno said.

This is a cell, built for two, at the new Escambia County Corrections Facility.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
This is a cell, built for two, at the new Escambia County Corrections Facility.

“The security engineer will also look at the work release building on “L” Street to see the cost of hardening that, the benefit of hardening that and how many people we can house there.”

Moreno added that the consultant would be asked to look at all of the county’s options, following up on the request of Commissioners May and Bergosh to find ways to squeeze more inmates in the new jail facility, despite concerns about accelerating wear and tear there.

“If we have beds that are available in the new jail, and our projections are off from what we originally projected in terms of women facilities or infirmaries or juveniles, and we’re in a critical need, we need to make sure we utilize every single bed in that jail,” proclaimed May.

“And, Lumon, I appreciate that because that’s exactly where I’m at,” Bergosh chimed in. “Because right now in our old jail that was built in 1981, you’ve got cells designed for one that have been tripled up. So, you can’t look me in the eye with a straight face and say we can’t double-up the much bigger, much more modern, brand-new facility.”

Looking ahead, Bergosh suggests the county consider developing a surge plan, for those times in the future when the inmate population swells.

“I think it makes sense, because that together with the road camp, together with Fairfield Drive, I think solves the issue and we can make good on our promise to the Sheriff to give him “L” Street (the “L” Street property) and we can tear down that old jail. That desperately needs to happen.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.