Way We Were: Modern jail had its problems

The Richmond County Law Enforcement Center at 401 Walton Way closed its cell doors in 2013, after a troubled quarter century.

 

Its last days recalled tales of sewage spills, mold and water leaks, perhaps best illustrated when sheriff’s deputies brought toy bathtub ducks to float about the floor (and be captured by journalists’ cameras.)

But the truth is most public buildings don’t age well.

Richmond County’s original courthouse was a dangerous, crumbling disaster when it finally came down in the 1950s. Likewise its historic Columbia County counterpart in Appling prompted an irritated Judge Franklin Pierce to order its commissioners to jail in the late 1970s if they couldn’t make repairs.

The Law Enforcement Center looked to be different, rising high beside Gordon Highway in the mid-1980s, it favored the future. Trouble, however, showed up quickly.

It was supposed to open in July 1985, replacing the nearby Richmond County Jail, which federal courts deemed crowded and inadequate, but that opening was delayed two months.

September came and so did bad news. There weren’t enough jailers to run the larger new facility. The sheriff said he needed about an extra quarter-million dollars to do the job.

It still didn’t have any inmates a few days later, Sept. 7, when a “faulty” 15-cent gasket led to a water line leak, causing “fairly extensive”damage from the fourth floor down to the basement. There was no one in the building at the time, but the internal flood set off burglar alarms.

The damage was considerable, according to Chronicle stories and photos, not only to the ceiling tiles and walls, but, County Attorney Bob Daniel said, to the electrical system, which opened and closed cell doors.

It would cost another quarter-million to fix.

The grand opening was pushed to mid-November and that event went smoothly.

Not so smooth was the transfer of inmates from the old 1937 jail 50 yards away. Electrical problems with the jail’s main control panel held up the move originally planned for Nov. 17, a Sunday. It was finally complete two days later “without incident.”

A few weeks later, a standing-room crowd packed the Law Enforcement Center’s new courtroom — an added enhancement to the new facility. In fact, the crowd spilled into hallways and adjoining rooms, prompting the judge (who happened to be the aforementioned Frank Pierce) to plead for patience.

“We can do no better today than to thank God for what we have,” he said.

A week later Augusta city policemen completed their own move into the center, leaving their 50-year old headquarters on Ninth Street and joining the sheriff’s department already in place. The month would end with few reported problems.

Longtime political reporter Margaret Twiggs expressed the mood of most in her year-end column, nothing that “1985 will be remembered as the year the joint law enforcement center was finally completed after years of hassling between city and county governments.”

She could have added, be careful what you hassle for.

 

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Sun, 12/17/2017 - 19:23

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