Originally created 11/19/96

Collapse of jail beds raise new questions

The collapse of bunkbeds that injured two inmates at the Columbia County Detention Center raised new questions Monday about the structural integrity of the jail, prompting an inspection of all welds in the new addition.

One side of a metal top bunk in the C-wing of the jail snapped just after 9 a.m. on Sunday, sending two inmates to the hospital where they were treated for minor injuries and released, Maj. Mike Tomberlin said.

Because of the incident, Sheriff Clay Whittle requested an outside firm inspect welds in the that wing of the building, including beds, desks and chairs. The inspection will be conducted Wednesday.

The 24 inmates housed on top bunks will sleep on mattresses on the floor until the cause of the accident can be determined, Maj. Tomberlin said.

If welding in the remaining bunks is defective, the general contractor, M.B. Kahn Construction of Columbia, may be responsible for the cost of repairs, Maj. Tomberlin said.

The newest addition to the Detention Center, constructed earlier this year at a cost of $3.76 million, came under fire this year after two escapes by inmate Christopher Jeburk, who - in one incident - sawed through window bars that were later judged substandard.

The manufacturer of 22 of the jail's 32 new window units, Amweld Building Products, reinforced all 32 units with additional steel this summer.

"This is similar to the problem we had with the windows after the Jeburk escape," Maj. Tomberlin said. "It appears to be an issue of quality and we do not anticipate bearing the (repair) costs."

Although continuing structural problems are troubling, Maj. Tomberlin said he believed the facility was a secure one.

"We are growing increasingly concerned about the quality of construction in the facility," he said. "But the facility is secure and we are satisfied with the level of security we have."

Pete Brodie, chair of the County Commission, said problems with the jail highlight the need for such buildings to be inspected by an independent firm before they are cleared for operation.

But, until the cause of the bed collapse is determined, it is impossible to determine who is at fault. "Welds can crack and break, and there can be any number of reasons for that," Mr. Brodie said. "And something as finite as one weld on one bed unit might be missed in an inspection."

Actual wear and tear on the bed unit might also come into play, he said.

Messages seeking comment from officials at M.B. Kahn Contractors were not returned Monday.

In an effort to resolve lingering concerns about the security of the jail, an escape notification system went on line last week. The $6,800 system includes a loud siren to be sounded if a prisoner escapes. The siren is audible for a mile radius.

"Officers found that in spite of our attempts at door-to-door notification, people in the community wanted a rapid notification system such as an audible siren," Maj. Tomberlin said.

Ann Brown, who lives next door to the jail and works only a mile away, said she was relieved when she learned the siren had been installed.

"We do feel safer with (the siren)," she said. "We have children around all the time and it will at least give us a few minutes to get them inside."

In the event of an escape, the siren will sound in a continuous wail that lasts several seconds. Tests of the system will be done in short bursts lasting two or three seconds, Maj. Tomberlin said.


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