Severe crowding is nothing new at Berkeley County's jail.
Officials have made incremental improvements to Hill-Finklea Detention Center over the years, including a three-story addition to boost the jail's capacity in 2016. But the facility hasn't been able to keep up with the county's soaring population growth.
The latest consequence of overcrowding played out Saturday, when three inmates escaped from a holding cell by shimmying out a window, sending officers from a handful of law enforcement agencies scrambling to detain them.
Officials say they’re drafting solutions.
Sheriff Duane Lewis this week said he planned to make a pitch "fairly soon" to County Council to either add onto the jail in Moncks Corner — by building up or out — or to find another facility. He said he and others are looking to jails around the state and evaluating “what’s best for county taxpayers,” though he didn’t have a potential cost estimate for such a project.
"Nobody’s got their head in the sand," Lewis said. "Everybody understands it’s a priority."
The jail operated well beyond its 291-person capacity every day last year, and the problem is persisting. As a result, portable beds line the floors, there’s no space for continuing education classes and some inmates are sent away from the cramped facility to Charleston County’s jail.
Authorities pointed to crowding as one of several factors that contributed to Saturday’s jailbreak. Over the weekend, the detention center’s population swelled to as many as 440 inmates — nearly 150 above what it's meant to.
In a Facebook post Saturday announcing that authorities had captured the inmates within two hours, the Sheriff’s Office used a flurry of hashtags including #WeNeedABiggerJail.
Berkeley County Supervisor Johnny Cribb said in a statement Tuesday he is working with council "to determine priorities and identify funding sources."
"I have no doubt that I can work with all county departments and leaders to develop a plan to address their respective concerns," he said. "Jail overcrowding is undoubtedly an issue for the county, and I will work with the sheriff to come up with a plan to adequately address the problem."
In the meantime, an internal investigation is delving into how three men were able to break free from a holding cell that operates out of a former office in the jail.
“One of the things we’ve determined is that there should’ve been more security measures in place,” Lewis said.
Authorities said Michael Andrew Hutto 29, Eric Evander Garner, 41, and Thomas Matthew Davidson, 33, were among 15 people in the temporary cell that’s meant to hold six to eight people as they await processing.
Garner was charged with possession of a Schedule I controlled substance, while Hutto was being held on a first-degree burglary charge, according to jail records. Davidson was in custody for charges out of Cascade County, Mont.
Lewis said it took longer than normal to process inmates that morning. Part of the internal investigation is looking into how the backup happened.
About 15 minutes after a deputy fed the inmates, one of the men spent several minutes kicking out an acrylic glass window. Security footage showed the men — dressed in plainclothes — crawling out the window from the top of a bunk bed. Deputies noticed the inmates were missing around 11:30 a.m. The Sheriff's Office released an edited version of the video, which does not show the men removing the window.
Randy Demory, director of the detention center, said the window in question has been taken out and will be replaced with brick masonry.
Lewis said staff are also evaluating the jail's security. They’ve identified another area where they could hold inmates who have yet to be processed.
As a general response to overcrowding, Lewis said the jail has added surveillance cameras and correctional officers have increased cell checks.
Shaundra Young Scott, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, stressed the need for officials to prioritize decongestion or remodeling efforts at the detention center, which employs about 90 people.
“I know this is something that happens when you do not have the resources you need to adequately staff the facility,” she said of the escape.
She added that the conditions are illustrative of a mentality of punishment over rehabilitation.
Demory said Sheriff’s Office arrests have increased considerably in recent years, from 2,960 in 2016 to 3,626 arrests last year.
An annual report showed that 28 percent of inmates were jailed on drug charges in 2018. The vast majority of inmates are in jail awaiting sentencing. The average stay is 26 days, the director said.
Demory emphasized the need for collaboration among County Council as well as within the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office to work out a system in which detainees accused of minor offenses can be fast-tracked so they are not occupying the detention center for long periods of time.
“Those (minor) cases pile up ... and contributes to the conditions that are tantamount to chronic and severe overcrowding,” Demory said.