Welcome to jail without bars

Officer R.E. Justice watches rows of screens broadcasting images from more than 600 cameras throughout the new Charleston County jail on Leeds Avenue in North Charleston.

Sahib Rose has spent the past two weeks sleeping on a torn mattress on a floor in the Charleston County jail, just inches from the toilet he shares with his cellmates.

He's locked down in the oldest part of the jail, a 1960s-era relic with rusting bars, peeling paint and more inmates than beds for them to sleep on.

"There are people on the floors, people sleeping on tables," said Rose, 30, who faces a sexual assault charge. "It's just nasty in here."

Whether Rose or his fellow inmates realize it or not, their lives are about to dramatically change with the opening today of a new $100 million addition to the jail.

The 332,000-square-foot expansion, which is longer than a football field and a hulking four stories tall, is designed to ease the chronic overcrowding that has plagued the jail for years.

The addition has about a third as much space inside as the Citadel Mall, and will make Charleston County's jail the largest in the state, able to house some 3,000 inmates.

The new building towers over the rest of the complex, squatting on the Leeds Avenue property like a giant concrete box, a utilitarian structure gray like a battleship.

Inside it features modern methods and technology, from ozone-infused washing machines to cut hot-water costs to an elaborate control room where officers monitor operations with 650 video cameras.

"I think it's going to be remarkable," Chief Deputy Mitch Lucas, the jail's administrator, said.

About two years after construction began on the project, more than 100 people are expected to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning at the cavernous building, with speeches by Sheriff Al Cannon and County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor.

Inmates are expected to move in over the next month or so, but officials are being vague on the exact dates, for security reasons.

The current Detention Center, last expanded in 1993, was built to house 661 inmates but brimmed with more than 2,000 people at times in recent years.

On any given day, seven inmates might be stuffed in a cell built for four, while a communal cell might pack 52 people in space designed for 30. The numbers have dipped since 2008, but the facility was still operating this week at more than double its intended capacity, Lucas said.

The new building, designed to meet the county's needs until 2025, gives the jail room to grow, and its fourth floor will remain unoccupied for the time being, Lucas said.

The extra space will allow officials to shut down the oldest sections of the jail, where Rose is now housed, in a month or so. Crews will begin working to convert those areas to other uses, he said.

Still, more room is just part of the equation at the new building. The design aims to improve safety and efficiency, as well as give detention officers greater ability to monitor and manage inmate behavior, Lucas said.

The new building has 21 dormitory-style housing units, without bars or traditional cells. The sleeping areas have waist-high walls next to the beds, but otherwise the large rooms are open, so a single officer can watch and interact with the 64 inmates who eat, sleep and live there.

Lucas described the model as "a teacher-in-the-classroom concept" that helps officers get to know inmates and head off potential problems.

"When the oldest part of the jail was built, the idea was to put everyone behind bars, lock the door and feed them three times a day. That was pretty much it," he said.

"This is a different concept. The personal contact advances the job of detention officers from being a turnkey to being an active participant in the criminal justice system."

The units are designed to be largely self-contained, eliminating much of the cost and risk of moving inmates around the facility for various services, Lucas said. Each unit has space for educational classes, drug and alcohol programs, medical exams, exercise and other activities.

Family visits will be conducted over video monitors, and touch-screens kiosks will allow inmates to order canteen items, arrange visits or check on their charges. Unless they are really ill, headed to court or ready for release, there is no reason for inmates to leave, he said.

Those who don't behave will be shipped over to the old building, where the higher-risk prisoners will continue to be housed in units with cells, Lucas said. The hope, however, is that inmates will behave and take advantage of opportunities to improve themselves, he said.

In two housing units where the jail has employed this strategy over the past couple of years, the number of incidents of improper behavior have been "unbelievably low," Lucas said.

Fran Zandi, a former jailer who now works with the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute of Corrections, said this behavior-management approach to dealing with inmates is being employed across the country to much success.

For two years, her organization has been studying five jails in different states working with this model, and they have seen a noticeable drop in inmate misconduct, she said.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com.