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Despite some repairs, conditions are still a problem at the old Escambia County Jail

The old portion of the Escambia County Jail was built in 1981.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
The old portion of the Escambia County Jail was built in 1981.

A little more than a year after Escambia County Commissionersput the spotlight on deteriorating conditions at the old Escambia County Jail, some issues have been addressed, but problems persist for inmates still housed there.

“One of the biggest complaints was the leaking water,” said the mother of an inmate currently being held at the old facility, which was constructed in 1981. For privacy, we’re identifying her as Diane.

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“Leaks in the sinks and there's water on the floor, and the showers stay wet. And so there's a lot of black mold in the jail that is all over the floors, coming through the vents. And that's a real health hazard for breathing that. It can cause a lot of problems in your lungs.”

During their regular phone calls, Diane says her son also has complained about the air conditioner running all the time, noting that the constantly cold temperature combined with ongoing moisture issues has led to him and other inmates in overcrowded cells getting sick.

The mom is working hard to get her son released as soon as possible. A hearing in his case has been set for early next month.

In the short run, she says she’d love to see him moved back to the new correctional facility which opened in spring 2021.

“That would be great, I mean if he could be moved that would be awesome,” she proclaimed. “I don’t know if they have the space for it, but they all should get moved.”

Jeff Bergosh

Diane’s son is not the first to complain about living conditions at the jail. In the past couple of years, the issue has been the focus of numerous inmate lawsuits against the Escambia County Jail.

In March of last year, Escambia commissioners committed to efforts to tackle the situation at the old jail, with their primary focus on finding alternative housing for the inmates being held there. Initially, approximately 250 inmates were relocated.

As of Sunday, April 16, the Escambia County Corrections webpage reported 1,253 inmates in the county jail, old and new facilities combined. Click here for the latest inmate data.

According to County Administrator Wes Moreno, the staff has been trying to utilize all available space, including the county’s Road Prison or work annex in Cantonment, which now has just around 200 inmates.

“They don't really qualify to work on the road crew, but we are housing them out there in Cantonment,” Moreno said. “We're continuously trying to shuffle inmates around inside the newer facility and bring folks out of the old facility."

But, the county has fallen short of their originally announced plan to move 600 inmates, which is being attributed — in part — to the constant influx and security classification of inmates.

“We don’t have very many maximum security cells in the new facility, because the new facility was designed and built just to replace the central booking and detention center that blew up," he said of the new facility, which was built to handle a capacity of 840 beds throughout 15 housing units.

"So, we don’t have a lot of maximum security cells in the new wing, which is something we’ll correct as we move forward."

Moreno says efforts to relocate inmates from the old jail are ongoing. Meantime, the county has tried to alleviate some of the problems at the aging facility.

“We've not spent millions of dollars, but we have spent money and time and man hours there in the old jail, working to make some improvements. I'm not going to say they're vast improvements, I'm not saying they're night and day but we are, and have been, working to make things, address things as best we can there in that old jail.”

Escambia County Commissioner Jeff Bergosh brought the poor condition of the old jail to the attention of the board last year and called for the wrecking ball to deal with it. He said he’s still concerned, but feeling a bit more optimistic thanks to the work of the county’s facilities department.

“They've gone in there and they have totally redone two of the floors of our old jail and really addressed most, if not all, of the deficiencies that I saw when I went there and visited after I had heard some horror stories.”

Bergosh said county staff made repairs to the facility’s hot water system and addressed some of its plumbing problems. The county has also made strides in stabilizing their short-handed jail staff, by providing incentives to hire more corrections officers.

“Our staffing is a lot better," he said. "We've, obviously, increased pay for our corrections guards. Now we're the highest paying in the region."

Base pay for new Escambia County corrections officer trainees is now $20.74 an hour. A current opening lists base pay of $21.78 an hour for an already certified officer, plus a $2,000 signing bonus.

The ultimate goal is for those new officers to eventually work in a newly-constructed building.

The county is currently in the process of hiring an engineering firm that will assist in developing a request for proposals for the actual design of a new wing to be added onto the new jail facility.

“I would like to look for a firm that really has a very solid track record of completing projects and no issues,” said Bergosh, hoping to avoid some of problems related to construction of the new structure that are still being litigated.

“There's always going to be a problem with the punch list or commissioning the HVAC system or any number of issues,” he added. “But just given our experience with this particular project. You’ve asked what I'll be looking, I'll be looking at track record, and I'll probably be calling some references to some folks, when we get down to a short list, before I make my selection, my vote.”

A look inside a cell at the new Escambia County Jail facility before it opened in 2021.
Jennie McKeon
`WUWF Public Media
A look inside a cell at the new Escambia County Jail facility before it opened in 2021. Plans are now in the works to build an expansion.

Bergosh says the county could put out the request for proposals within the next 90 days.

Unfortunately, construction of a new wing at the jail will be years in the making and won’t help the inmates housed there now.

While acknowledging some work has been done in the old jail, Diane, the mother of an inmate who’s been held there since January, wants more urgency from county officials to do additional repairs to the 42-year-old facility or to move prisoners out.

“You know, these are people living here and having to put up with these conditions,” she said. “And, they need to kind of think about it like that, if they had a family member there or if they were in those conditions, what would they want to do? How would they want to handle it?”

She’s calling for anyone with ideas for dealing with the situation to pass them along to the Escambia County Commission.

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.