On Tuesday a group of randomly selected Houston County citizens entered a building everyone else tries their best to avoid.
The group of 17 made up the Houston County grand jury, on the last day of their 6-month term of service. They ended it by taking a tour of county jail.
Although grand juries are mostly known for deciding whether to issue indictments in felony criminal cases, they are also required by state law to inspect the county jail annually. It’s done for the same reason that indictments are considered, which is to provide citizen oversight.
The grand jury’s findings on the jail are published as a legal ad, but that won’t fall to this grand jury. District Attorney George Hartwig said two grand juries are seated each year, and while both tour the jail only the second grand jury will publish a report. That is expected to be published in December.
A Telegraph reporter was allowed to go along on the tour Tuesday but for security reasons, and inmate privacy, most of the jail was off limits to photos or video.
While this grand jury won’t be giving a report, the foreman, Patrick Moore, said afterward he found the jail “very clean and orderly.” That was about the same conclusion reached in the report published by the previous grand jury last December.
The tour began with Maj. Alan Everidge, the jail administrator, laying out facts about the jail. He said the jail has 666 beds, and a current population average of about 475 inmates. About half of those are suffering from some type of mental illness, which is one reason why Everidge said being a jailer is a tough job.
“The largest mental health facilities that there are in Georgia are jails,” he said.
He said the most common mental health issues among inmates are schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and depression.
He has been in law enforcement for 32 years, working as a patrol deputy and other jobs.
“What the people have do behind this wall every day is the toughest thing that law enforcement has to deal with,” he told the grand jurors. “Patrol gets to take them to the jail and leave them. They don’t have to deal with them anymore. We deal with the people that nobody else wants to deal with and sometimes their own family doesn’t want to deal with them.”
Everidge also explained the department’s overall philosophy on caring for the inmates.
“Our belief is that everybody here belongs to somebody,” he said. “They may be here for violating the law but at the same time, we want to treat them like we want our family member treated in the same scenario.”
Among facts he shared about the jail are:
- The starting annual pay for a jailer, who are certified deputies, is approximately $41,000.
- Jailers work 12-hour shifts. Once a shift starts, they cannot leave the jail, which is why one perk is that they get a meal provided by a contractor, not the same meal that inmates get.
- Inmates do much of the labor in the jail, including almost all of the work in the kitchen, plus cleaning and some maintenance. If all of that labor was replaced by paid civilian workers, it would cost the county about $1.5 million.
- Unless they cause trouble, inmates spend 8-10 hours a day outside their cell, which is required by court order.
- The jail has a library, and donations of books are welcome. Only paperbacks are allowed. Donations can be brought to the jail.
- About 20% of the inmates are women, kept in separate pods and guarded only by female deputies. Only male deputies guard the men.
- The annual budget is $13.4 million, which is about 25% of the county’s general fund budget.
- Around 8,000 to 10,000 people each year are placed in the jail.
Grand jury sees how the jail operates
After getting an overview of the jail, the grand jury entered the control room, where a jailer constantly watches a large bank of monitors throughout the building to spot any trouble.
The jail is divided in pods of up to 80 inmates, and there is only one jailer in each pod. But at any sign of trouble the person in the control room can immediately send other jailers into a pod.
From the control room the jurors walked down a long, empty hallway with pods on each side that were mostly blocked from view. For safety reasons — because the inmates are out of their cells — the grand jurors did not go into the pods.
They did see inmates working in various areas of the jail, including the kitchen. Inmates were also in the medical center, where nurses are on duty around the clock. Everidge said more than half of the inmates are on some type of medication.
Male inmates wear orange jump suits while females wear blue, and working inmates wear green.
With the jail taking inmates as young as 17, many of those are still in high school. For that reason, the school system is required to send people into the jail to continue their education and Everidge said that happens regularly.
The jail also has two cells especially designed for people with tuberculosis, a contagious and potentially fatal disease. If someone is diagnosed with TB and refuses treatment, Everidge said, the sheriff’s office may be ordered to put them in jail, even if they haven’t committed a crime. Everidge says that happens a couple of times a year, and usually the people agree to treatment once they are in jail.
The last site on the jail tour is the jail’s most unique feature. The jail is next to the courthouse, and there is a tunnel from the jail to the courthouse. Inmates are taken down the tunnel for their court appearances, which limits the opportunity for escape. Everidge said to his knowledge no other jail in Georgia has that feature.
The only escapes at the jail since it was built was when two inmates taking out trash on a work detail decided to flee. They were both captured within a day.
The jail was built in 2002 along with the courthouse, a combined $48 million project. Hartwig said it’s a modern, well-run jail and he couldn’t remember any past grand juries giving a bad report.
There is nothing binding about the report and the county does not have to act on grand jury findings, but Hartwig said he believes it’s a worthwhile process. Potentially if a grand jury did find areas that need improvement it could be ammunition to spur county commissioners to approve funding.
In 2017 a Bibb County grand jury inspected the Bibb jail and found issues with ventilation, mold and more in the 40-year-old facility. The report recommended planning to either build a new jail or expand the current one. That prompted Sheriff David Davis to give a media tour of the facility, highlighting those issues, but to date the county hasn’t moved forward with a plan to update the jail.
The Houston jurors asked some questions, including the cost per inmate. Everidge said that works out to be about $64 per day for each inmate at the current average population. If the jail was full, he said, the cost could be around $46 per day because the staff size would be the same. The jail employs 164 people, including 138 deputies.
Every three years grand jurors also inspect other county offices and issue a report on how those offices are functioning.
Grand jurors are selected at random, but unlike jurors selected to hear criminal and civil trials, attorneys do not have an option to eliminate grand jurors. Also, where trial jurors would serve in only one case, in Houston grand jurors serve for six months and meet twice a month to consider indictments.
Hartwig gave some final words to the grand jurors after they finished their jail tour, and reminded them he had told them on their first day they would learn a lot about the court system and how government operates. He asked if that turned out to be true and was answered with an immediate chorus in the affirmative.
Moore, the grand jury foreman, said it was an enlightening experience. He was especially concerned at the number of child molestation cases the grand jury heard.
“It just kind of opens your eyes on what’s really going on in the community,” he said. “It was definitely a pleasure being able to serve on it and do the the civil part that I could do.”