Originally created 07/17/04

Jurors propose merging facilities



Richmond County should consider closing its Walton Way jail and housing all inmates under one roof at the new facility on Phinizy Road, the outgoing grand jury recommended Friday.

In its presentments, a grand jury subcommittee said it found the 401 Walton Way jail was overcrowded, in poor physical condition and understaffed.

"The Walton Way building should be abandoned," the subcommittee's report said.

The report said it is pointless and a waste of money for the city to continue spending money on an outdated facility that is too small and aging badly.

The subcommittee recommended adding additional pods - building sections with jail cells - to the Phinizy Road jail in south Augusta to house more inmates.

Consolidating the jails would reduce the need and expense of transporting inmates, according to the report, and it could reduce the number of jailers needed.

"There was an obvious lack of adequate staffing at the facility (on Walton Way). Many areas were only monitored by one officer when two or more were required," the report sta- ted.

Understaffing creates dangerous working conditions for the officers, the report noted.

Richmond County Sheriff Ronald Strength said Friday night he had yet to read the report but that moving all jail inmates to one location is probably inevitable.

"I would think in the next five to 10 years, we would be housing all inmates in one location," Sheriff Strength said.

However, the administrative department, the criminal investigation department and the civil division of the sheriff's office would need to stay at the Walton Way location to be near downtown courts, he said.

Whether the Walton Way jail closes is up to the city commission, Sheriff Strength said.

"They are aware and they are concerned with the condition of that building," he said.

The grand jury members also recommended a market analysis to determine whether the jail staff's pay is adequate compared with salaries in communities of comparable size.

When the 556-bed Phinizy Road facility opened in late 1997, it was intended to house non-violent male inmates and female inmates. It cost more than $24 million to build.

The south Augusta facility was built in part to end federal oversight of the old jail.

A lawsuit originally filed in 1977 lingered for 21 years over the heads of city officials and taxpayers.

The lawsuit was closed in February 1998, thanks to the opening of the Augusta-Richmond County Detention Center on Phinizy Road, which ended overcrowding.

However, within a year the jails were nearly full and more space was added.

Since then, at least one other grand jury has recommended adding cells and increasing the number of jailers.

Staff Writer Kate Lewis contributed to this report.

Recommendations:

The Richmond County grand jury, which completed its term of service Friday, also made the following recommendations:

  • The city should study salary levels and consider an outside firm to fill five key positions in the public works engineering department

  • The Emergency Management Agency and 911 department need a centralized back-up facility, and the EMA needs additional staff.
  • Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.