Underutilized jail Crowded Berkeley facility has 2 unused floors

Capt. Cliff McElvogue explains why the control rooms and inmate pods remain empty on the second and third floors of the new addition to the Hill-Finklea Detention Center. Berkeley County Sheriff Wayne DeWitt is asking for more money to hire detention officers so the facility could house inmates in the areas.

Brad Nettles

While inmates at Berkeley County's Hill-Finklea Detention Center sleep on Stack-A-Bunk temporary beds in overcrowded cells, empty bunks gather dust on the two floors above.

A few years ago, a $10 million expansion was supposed to increase the capacity from 154 to 346 at the facility, which holds anyone in the county awaiting bond or a trial.

But that plan depended on more guards than the sheriff's office has. A jail that's understaffed quickly becomes overcrowded.

“It was a wise move to build this facility when we chose to do so several years ago,” Sheriff Wayne DeWitt said. “When the plans were made to build the annex, we were averaging between 400 to 450 inmates per day.”

Since then, the number has decreased because those with minor nonviolent offenses are usually released on personal recognizance bonds and because those wanting to plead guilty are processed quickly, DeWitt said. He said the numbers have probably leveled off.

But they have to keep the inmates close to adequately guard them. Last week, 322 inmates were crammed into a facility meant to house 225.

DeWitt has asked County Council to consider adding 14 correctional officers in the next fiscal year, which starts in July, to open the second floor. He brought the matter before the Justice and Public Safety Committee last week.

Budget cuts at every level have hurt funding for many county projects, Supervisor Dan Davis said.

“Everybody knows it's a need, but it's a matter of dollars,” he said. “Money is a huge object. Coming up with those dollars is going to be difficult.”

Entry-level salary and benefits for each officer, without overtime, is about $45,000 per year.

“It's important that we understand and address the problem,” DeWitt said. “It's a great concern for our community and for our officers. They have fights between inmates almost on a daily basis.”

Inmates include violent criminals and those in protective custody, who are kept in cells, and minimum security inmates who live in dormitory-style housing units monitored by surveillance cameras.

In the dorms, a deputy manning a control room keeps inmates in line, listening in on conversations and giving instructions. Kiosks in each area allow inmates to ask questions, get on the visitation sheet or request medical attention.

“There could be 30 people in that dorm that's supposed to house 20,” Director Cliff McElvogue said. “It makes it a very unsafe environment.”

The project — which also added support space, upgraded infrastructure and renovated the existing jail area — was finished in early 2010. The next year, the county added 10 officers to open a portion of it.

But the second and third floors, furnished and ready for use, remain empty. The county hasn't been able to afford to add the officers needed to open the spaces, which could hold 64 inmates each.

So far this year, the county has spent more than $190,000 on overtime for the officers, nearly $100,000 more than was budgeted.

“The whole thing, in a nutshell, is that we are understaffed and overcrowded,” McElvogue said. “The public has a misconception. They say, 'That's the jail, just throw them in there and close the door,' but it doesn't work that way. You've got to have the people to run it.”

Davis said the jail was built with the future in mind.

“When we built the jail we built it to last us a good long while,” he said. “We may have built a little more than we needed but we didn't want to build it and have it full the day that we opened.”

He said an overcrowded jail is not new or unique to Berkeley County.

“I don't know any jail that's not overcrowded,” Davis said. “We've had this problem for a long time. It's just not uncommon to be overcrowded. That's more the norm than to have a bed for each person.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.

Editor's note: Previous versions of this story contained an error about the capacity of Charleston County's jail. The information has been removed. The Post and Courier regrets the error.