HICKS COLUMN: Berkeley County jail problem isn't prisoner comfort, it's safety
There probably aren't a lot of folks in Berkeley County losing sleep over all those temporary bunks at the jail.
Well, other than the inmates.
Right now, the Hill-Finklea Detention Center has more than 300 prisoners sleeping on a floor designed to house 225.
So why is this a problem? Most folks would probably say, “Tough — these folks are in jail, not the Holiday Inn Express.”
But then why did taxpayers buy two whole jail floors that aren't being used? As usual, this comes down to money. It takes more guards to spread inmates out over three floors, and the county isn't flush with jail personnel. But now Sheriff Wayne DeWitt is asking for the money to hire 14 more guards.
This isn't about prisoner comfort, it's about public safety. And it's going to be a big test for this new — and notoriously factional — County Council.
Just three years ago Berkeley County spent $10 million to expand the jail.
But a lot of that nice, new space, is sitting empty because the county hasn't had the money to staff it.
Council says the sheriff hasn't asked for extra money until this year. He probably knew there was no use.
It's time for the county to step up. This is dangerous for jail employees, and it makes the whole jail expansion look silly.
“It makes no sense to spend $10 million on a jail and then not use it,” says Councilman Tim Callanan. “I think we have an obligation to do something. The people in jail are either not convicted or they are serving (time) for some nonviolent offense because they couldn't pay the fine.”
The good news is that both sides of the usually divided council say something needs to be done. Which is a surprise. They aren't sure they can give DeWitt all the guards he wants, since that would cost at least $630,000 a year, but they say it's a priority.
That's a start.
More deputies too
Councilman Jack Schurlknight says the county not only needs to pony up for the guards, it needs to take care of the entire Sheriff's Office.
More deputies too
Berkeley County is growing at a fast clip — 12,000 new residents in the past two years — and that means it needs a bigger jail. But Schurlknight says there's also a greater need on the street.
He says the sheriff needs more deputies to cover the huge rural pockets of the county.
“You have a deputy in Huger and then get a call in St. Stephen, he can't respond quickly enough,” Schurlknight says. “And if he needs back-up, that's another problem.”
Schurlknight says public safety is such a priority that it should take precedence over plans to reopen a satellite county office building in Goose Creek. Especially, he says, since most people do their business over the Internet these days.
Trouble is, a lot of Berkeley taxpayers don't like spending money on anything — and they will likely let council know how they feel about the jail before the budget vote.
So before long, the inmates might not be the only ones losing sleep.
Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@post andcourier.com or join his live chat today at 11 a.m. on postandcourier.com.