Originally created 09/21/03

Committee seeks fix for prison crowding



When the Augusta Commission's Finance Committee meets today, it's expected to discuss what to do with its rapidly growing prison population.

Officials and commissioners might have to decide whether to spend more money on fixing up the older downtown Walton Way jail or expand the rapidly filling, 5-year-old facility on the south side's Phinizy Road.

Officially called the Augusta-Richmond County Detention Center, the Phinizy Road prison was once deemed the solution to overcrowding at the downtown site. It has done that job well, officials say, but is now regularly over capacity.

Capt. Chester Huffman, who is in charge of the medium-security facility, said expanding the Phinizy Road facility is easier than making the repairs needed for the downtown jail.

Unlike the aging, towerlike jail at 401 Walton Way, the Phinizy Road complex has a lot of room - 52 acres - to expand, with a linear construction that uses sealed-off sections or pods.

"That's the way to go," Capt. Huffman said. "Building up is a dead end."

The 401 Walton Way jail "lasted 10 or 15 years, and look at the millions of dollars we've put into that place," he said.

Phinizy Road expansion might be funded under Augusta-Richmond County's proposed special purpose local option sales tax, which could provide $9 million for two new pods that can contain 304 beds, Capt. Huffman said.

That $9 million is part of a proposed $100 million package for public facilities improvements in Augusta, which also include new fire stations, a new judicial center and an exhibition and trade center.

A memorandum from Augusta's Public Works and Engineering says the city has three options to deal with the downtown facility:

  • Complete repairs as they're needed until funds are gone.
  • Find additional money to complete all the required repairs.
  • Not complete any of the repairs and move the jail functions elsewhere.
  • Such choices are expected to be discussed when officials meet today.

    The Phinizy Road prison, opened in 1998 and designed to house 556 inmates, had an average daily inmate population of 572 in July. The August average was 550, Capt. Huffman said, and one daily figure for September had 569 inmates listed.

    Reacting to the overcrowding problem, prison officials have issued bedding that new inmates sleep on - on the floor, he said.

    Some of the cells in the all-male inmate units have enough space to house the extra inmates comfortably, but the women's pod - designed for only 84 female inmates - has mostly small cells designed for one inmate.

    Most of the inmates at Phinizy Road are waiting for trials, but quite a few have been sentenced and are waiting for cells in the state prison system, Capt. Huffman said.

    "About 100 to 150 state-sentenced felons are waiting on the state to pick them up, based on their bed space," he said.

    The state has crowding problems of its own.

    With the budget for the Georgia Corrections Department tightening, construction of new prisons running into delays, and some centers shutting down, nearly 98 percent of the state's prison system is full, Morris News Service reported earlier this summer.

    More than 500 vacant job positions were axed, and $30 million from the state's $957 million budget for the state prison system was cut to help eliminate a nearly $700 million state budget deficit.

    The state expects 1,000 inmates to be added to the system during the next year.

    Because the Georgia Corrections Department is giving priority to other prisons with worse crowding, Capt. Huffman said, and because Richmond County is no longer under federal scrutiny for its jail conditions, the county is no longer on the priority list for moving inmates.

    "At least the state is giving us a couple of dollars a day," he said, but would not specify the amount.

    The overcrowding provides another indicator of close-quarters pressure - fights.

    "When there's more inmates living in the same area, there's more tensions that come up," Capt. Huffman said.

    He said 125 fights occurred in the medium-security prison between January and the end of July. With August's figure added, the number jumps to 152.

    In at least 37 cases, medical treatment was required for jailers, he said. No jailer was seriously injured.

    Arguments can start over anything. "The TV set is a subject of many a disagreement," Capt. Huffman said.

    A POSSIBLE SOLUTION

    As the inmate population of the Phinizy Road jail increases, the jail is becoming more crowded, leading to more fights. Relief could be on the way with the proposed special purpose local option sales tax, which might add more than 300 beds to the south Augusta facility.

    Reach Jeremy Craig at (706) 823-3409 or jeremy.craig@augustachronicle.com.