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Jam-packed: jail overcrowding worsened by guard lay offs
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The Newton County Jail was built to hold 650 inmates, but with budget cuts and an increase in crime in the county, there are several inmates sleeping on cots on the floor. And according to Detention Administrator Captain Sammy Banks, the detention center is scheduled to take a hit with significant cuts to its staff this week. 

The facility has, as of press time, 70 guards working and more than 600 inmates, age’s 17-65-years-old. According to Banks, they house individuals who are charged with “all the seven deadly sins.” There are 24 accused murderers included in that number, as well as gang members, drug dealers and rapists. 

In Banks’ version of a perfect world, there would be between 22-24 people per 12-hour shift in the jail. Right now, in A shift, there are 10 guards. That’s roughly a 9-1 inmate/guard ratio.

What’s more, the inmates know the jail is understaffed and frequently tell the guards that.

“They’ll say ‘you’re understaffed, what are you going to do?’” he said. “I worry every day for my officers’ safety.”

The jail is made up of pods which have cells for two inmates. Inside the pods are bathrooms and a shower — to which state law dictates inmates must have access. In minimum security there is one guard, in maximum security there are two. Some pods have 72 beds, others have 56 beds. Right now, in addition to the beds available there are also “boats” — which are basically a type of cot — that are placed 0n the floors in the pods. Some of the inmates are actually sleeping in multi-purpose rooms, which have no bathrooms or showers, and must be taken from those rooms to use the bathroom and bathe every so often.

Banks said that not only does the constant need to move them create a potential safety risk, but being told they have to sleep in a boat also tends to irritate some of the inmates, which can lead to temper flares, which again, threatens the safety of guards and other inmates. 

"We have approximately 30 boats on the floor this morning [Wednesday]," said Banks. "And I just ordered another 25 boats and another 100 mattresses."

There is one 56-person pod in the detention center that remains empty and has been empty for months. Prior to the cuts in staffing and budget, the NCSO could not afford to hire a guard to staff that pod.

According to a staff analysis performed recently, and shared with the Newton County Board of Commissioners, the jail is below strength in its staff and has been for a number of years. The jail is also considered by the state to be at 106 percent occupancy.
As of Wednesday, there were 611 inmates at the Newton County Jail. Of those, 248 are awaiting trial, 99 are serving county time and 203 are sentenced and waiting to be moved to a state facility, but with a lack of bed space and prisons across the state being closed, the inmates have no choice but to remain in the county jail.

Banks said they receive funds from the state for the inmates that have been sentenced, but they are minimal. It costs approximately $65 a day for a healthy inmate. That number figures in everything from food and showers to electricity. The state pays $22 of that.

There have been several complaints and ideas as to how to save money in the jail, none of which are possible in the state of Georgia, according to Banks. One of the ideas he hears from citizens is to save money by shutting off the air, but that isn't possible because along with inmates in the jail, there are also guards working there. Also, to keep it warm would serve as a hotbed for diseases to flourish, costing the county even more money in medical bills for sick inmates.

The state also dictates that an ill inmate must be taken to the hospital for treatment and must remain there or be sent to surrounding medical facilities at the doctor's discretion.

A popular suggestion is to mimic things done in Arizona, such as chain gangs, but the Supreme Court will not allow that in the state, stating it would be a violation of inmates civil rights. And although they do maintain the grounds around the city and county clean the detention facility and help in any way they are told, they cannot work outside when the temperatures soar.

"Everything that you see that is cleaned, cut, repaired or replaced, inmate labor is involved," said Banks. "We save the county millions of dollars a year."

Ankle bracelets are available but are ordered at a judge's discretion. Inmates also must meet a certain criteria to be eligible for the bracelets. The county jail currently has 14 people out with them and it costs $7.50 a day, but the savings of keeping them out of jail is roughly $15,000 a month.

"People are judging the police departments and the county departments on what they see on TV and it doesn't work that way," said Banks. "Things don't get solved in 30 minutes. People don't know what goes on because we don't advertise it in the paper every time there's a major incident here. If we did the public would be shocked."

If there is an incident inside one of the pods there is certain procedure that must be followed. There is always the potential for a guard or inmate to be killed, but that potential increases when operated below staff.

"Cell searches are done regularly and shanks are found," he said. "Just because people don't hear about it doesn't mean it isn't happening," said Banks.

"We have lock-down situations, threats that contracts have been taken out on the officer's and every intelligence we get out of this facility is taken seriously. The first time we say they're playing games and we don't act we're going to have a death on our hands.

"I'm not going to have an officer or an inmate - no matter who they are - get killed on this watch," he said. "Every employee is number one and the inmates are second."

Sheriff Ezell Brown said Thursday afternoon that he would announce all staff cuts after the weekend.