Originally created 10/25/02

Crowded cells hurt area jails

Richmond County deputies will give tickets to some misdemeanor offenders rather than arrest them.

Overcrowding in the Rich-mond County jails hit record levels Thursday, creating an environment one official com-pared to a homeless shelter.

There were 916 people packed into the jails on Walton Way and Phinizy Road by 4 p.m. Thursday.

"And they're still coming in the back door," Assistant Chief Jailer Chester V. Huffman Jr. said.

The swelling population means some suspects arrested on the street will be given tickets instead of jail cells for certain misdemeanor crimes, such as disorderly conduct.

It also means added tension in the jails, which could pose a problem for a sheriff's office already suffering from personnel shortages.

Richmond County's two jail facilities are designed with 910 beds. Even if the jails were only at capacity, they still would be considered overcrowded because they are not staffed to handle the load. Plus, inmates must be housed in certain areas based on their crimes, leaving some areas packed.

In the women's section at Phinizy Road, there are 100 women with 84 beds.

"They've been sleeping on the floor for two years," Capt. Huffman said. "It looks like a homeless shelter. Giving them enough room to breathe is the problem."

Officials cite various reasons for the overcrowding.

There are 121 inmates who have been sentenced and are awaiting transfer to state prisons, but corrections officials say there are no state beds available. Stricter laws require inmates convicted of certain crimes to serve 90 percent of their sentence, lessening the number that can be released.

"We are trying to make the beds available, but people aren't getting out," said Scheree Lipscomb, the director of public information for the Department of Corrections. "All the jails are overcrowded."

The jail is also full of people who have been picked up by probation officials simply for not paying a court fine.

Officials are working on alleviating the problem. Judges in Richmond County State Court routinely hold hearings to reduce the jail population, giving suspects credit for time served and sending others home on personal recognizance bonds.

The sheriff's office is also working to get 100 beds at the Richmond County Correctional Institute on Tobacco Road.

"It should be real soon," Col. Gary Powell said.

The District Attorney's Office is working as fast as possible to move the suspects through the judicial process, said William Bowcutt, the chief assistant district attorney.

"There's really not much we can do other than move our cases forward as rapidly as we can," Mr. Bowcutt said.

The soaring jail population is a problem throughout Georgia, where inmate numbers grew by 26 percent in the last decade, according to the U.S. Census. In August, 49 jails had populations above capacity.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.


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