NEED A NEW JAIL? Sheriff says 40-year-old facility outdated, dangerous

Published 12:35 am Sunday, March 5, 2017


NATCHEZ — Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten says after approximately 40 years downtown, the county jail has outlived its useful life.

Patten said the building has security, health and space issues that could put inmates, office employees and even the community at risk.

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One of Patten’s biggest concerns is a fire breaking out in the jail. Patten said his jail has some similar features to the old Biloxi jail, which did suffer a tragedy due to fire in the 1980s.

“This is a reality we are going to have to face eventually,” Patten said. “It’s a problem for me. It’s a problem for the (Adams County) Board of Supervisors. It’s a problem for the people who have loved ones here.”

In 1982 at the Biloxi jail, an inmate started a fire and the jailer passed out from the smoke before he could open the cells to get to the fire’s source.

The fire department had to bring in a tow truck to pull the prison doors and bars out of the wall to evacuate some inmates. Twenty-seven people died in the fire and 43 people were injured.

Patten said the City of Biloxi is still paying money to the families who lost people in the fire.

Like the old Biloxi jail, the cells in Adams County do not pop open with the push of a button, Patten said. The two to three people who have keys would have to run up and down to each of the 60 cells to let the prisoners out.

Once the inmates did get out, Patten said no fenced area exists to house inmates outside. The inmates would have to be let into the streets of downtown Natchez.

“A recreation area allows them to get an hour of daylight each day,” Patten said. “If you have to evacuate the jail, a recreation area can also be used to herd people in and house them until they can be transported to another facility.”

Another problem, Patten said, is the sprinkler system is not set up to operate without a firefighter hooking it to a spout located on the exterior near the sheriff’s office.

“If a fire broke out right now, the sprinkler system would not go off until the fire truck got here,” Patten said. “It’s the way the system was built.”

Patten said his employees are extremely vigilant and he does not plan to allow a fire like happened in Biloxi to occur in Adams County.

“We patrol constantly and are watching (the inmates),” Patten said. “But if a real big blaze broke out and we had to individually unlock 60 cells, it would be tough to get every single person out.”

While Patten said he could not go into precise details, the jail’s security system does have blind spots as well.

“You don’t see stacked facilities like this anymore,” Patten said. “It’s becoming a thing of the past in the U.S.

“With this being a multi-level facility, there are blind spots in the jail where it can be hard to see activity at times.”

Patten said he plans to install a new camera system, but with a multilevel facility, anticipates blind spots could still occur. Patten said deputies patrol regularly to make up for the blind spots.

Jail administrator Tony Nichols said he also had concerns with only having two mental health cells in a community where mental health concerns continue to become a larger issue.

Also dealing with space, Nichols said the holding area is so small it is difficult to book in more than a few inmates at a time.

Space in the larger facility is a concern as well, Patten said. With the number of employees expanding and the E-911 center moving in, Patten said he has had to convert an old lobby, part of a bathroom, a closet and other miscellaneous spots into places for an office and an interrogation room.

“We have four to five people in every little office here,” Patten said. “We are running out of space.”

Like every old building, Patten said miscellaneous concerns exist, such as drainage and maintenance.

Patten said he is has to replace a computer and two $2,500 docking stations for body cameras because a water leak from the cells spilled on the electronic equipment.

Because the parts are difficult to come by, approximately 6 months ago the sheriff’s office had to spend $100,000 to repair the building’s lone elevator, Patten said.

The lower level, particularly the boiler room, floods every time it rains. Touring through the facility, rust spots were visible where the water line had come on pipes approximately a foot and mold was growing in spots near the air conditioning system.

Gas lines and plumbing lines are also exposed in spots such as the kitchen.

“It’s just time to upgrade,” Patten said. “The way the facility was built was good for those times, but for modern day times, we have to evolve it.”

Patten has been in talks with a firm that builds jails — Benchmark Construction — and figures he has been provided estimate a new sheriff’s office, jail and justice court facility would cost approximately $8 million.

Patten said he would like to see the facility placed near the old International Paper site, but that he is open to other location suggestions. He said approximately 10 acres would be needed.

Leaving downtown and not having to deal with the frequent stop signs and red lights could help response time in the county, Patten said.

Most importantly, Patten said, the new facility would provide the space needed and eliminate the security concerns.

One of Patten’s goals for a new facility is to have an open bay for deputies that overlooks the cells and would allow for deputies to have a view of the cells and beds to more efficiently keep an eye on prisoner activity — the only exception being a shower curtain.

The jail would also have locks that could be flipped with a switch and a secure, exterior space to empty inmates into in case of emergency, Patten said.

“Things like this, you have to get ahead of,” Patten said. “Would you rather pay $8 million for a new jail or $800 million for a lawsuit?”

Assuming a 20-year note and the $8 million facility would be financed through a tax-bond, County Administrator Joe Murray said taxes would have to be raised 1.53 mills.

For the owner of a $100,000 home with no homestead exemption, an $8 million facility would require the taxpayer to pay an additional $22.95 per year in taxes.

A $100,000 homeowner with regular homestead would pay an additional $15.30 per year and a $100,000 homeowner with special homestead would pay an additional $3.82 per year.

Board of Supervisors President Mike Lazarus said he believes the sheriff and the Natchez-Adams School District need to put both building projects up for a referendum vote in November and see what happens.

“If the public wants it, then I don’t have a problem with it,” he said.

Lazarus said, however, he did not believe the public would fund both a new high school and a new jail facility.

“We have a regional jail in Fayette we could utilize until we address the jail problem here,” Lazarus said. “That would be an option if it was really a hazard, but that would be up to (Patten).”

Patten said he is for the new school being built, but that the community also needs to prepare for building a new jail facility.

“If it came down to building a new jail or the new school, I would rather see the school built first,” Patten said. “If possible, I’d like to see them done at the same time.

“The grand jury has issued a report saying the jail needs to be replaced. The reality is this is something the entire community is going to have to come to terms with, that this will have to happen.”