Pike Co. Jail feels the squeeze

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 28, 2001

Managing Editor

Jan. 27, 2001 10 PM

Pike County Sheriff’s Dept. Capt. Doug Wheeler uses two words to describe the Pike County Jail, a facility he is charged with supervising for Sheriff Russell Thomas, "old and overcrowded."

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The jail, built in 1957, may not seem unusual on an initial walk-through of the facility. It has bars, doors, cells with bunk beds and toilets and it’s kept unusually clean. But when comparing the facility to others throughout the state and nation, a few things become obvious.

"The first thing you can tell about this facility is that it was built before much of the technology that is used in current facilities was developed," Wheeler said. "Everything here is done manually without the benefit of new technology."

And those upgrades, while sorely needed, Wheeler said, are impractical in the current facility.

"We are not equipped to add the control rooms and the computerized equipment that is in use in other facilities throughout the state," he said. "We don’t have any place to put that stuff."

Space is tight. Built 44 years ago – before Wheeler was born – the Pike County Jail was originally designed to accommodate 40 prisoners at a time.

"We came in and added bunk beds and did other things to stretch our space and we brought the number of available openings in this jail up to 60," Wheeler said. "But that’s a tight fit."

But that "fit" has gotten even tighter in recent years. In January of this year, the facility averaged around 80 prisoners per day.

"We have 14 men in one 10-man cell," he said. "It’s not that conditions are bad, but the fit is tight. There’s not a lot of space."

And that lack of space is something Wheeler and Sheriff Thomas feel needs to be addressed.

"We are operating what is currently the fifth oldest jail in the state of Alabama," Wheeler said. "We have worked to make the best of it. We don’t want to complain that what we have isn’t good enough, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be content to sit back and do nothing to improve the conditions for the inmates and for the employees of the Sheriff’s Department who work here. We see a need for a new facility."

That "need" reached a peak last year when the facility, at one time, housed slightly more than 100 prisoners, hitting a new all-time high.

"It’s tight now," Wheeler said. "We’re out of beds and some of our inmates have to sleep on mats on the floor. But when we had 102 prisoners, it was terrible."

While Wheeler and Sheriff Thomas believe that jail shouldn’t be a fun place for people to be, they also believe that prisoners should be treated decently.

"We try to treat them like we would want to be treated," Wheeler said. "This doesn’t mean they get to do whatever they want. It means that they should be treated with respect and given decent and clean conditions while they lack the freedom to do the things we are able to do."

Window unit air conditioners were added in recent years to cut the heat from scorching summers.

"We couldn’t install central air because we’re not built to accommodate it," Wheeler said. "And when people are locked up close together and are burning up, it creates a tense atmosphere in the jail and makes us prone to have problems with our prisoners."

Fire, fights and the like are the result of some of those tensions, and those could be better managed and controlled if the facility had the technology in place to allow jail personnel to isolate problems to certain areas of the facility.

"As it is, we have to lock and unlock doors by hand," Wheeler said. "We have to come into the jail and walk up to the prisoners to communicate at all. It would help if we had the technology to eliminate things like this and to help make the lives of prisoners and personnel better."

The conditions are clean, thanks to Wheeler’s insistence on cleanliness throughout the facility. "We stress that," he said. "We are always encouraging them to clean, clean and clean. As a result, it stays clean, but it’s still crowded."

With state facilities running out of space as well, Wheeler said that several prisoners in the Pike County Jail have been sentenced to state facilities but have not been called up yet because of crowded conditions on a state level.

"We have about 25 prisoners that belong to the state," he said. "We have them here because the state doesn’t have room for them."

And for less than $2 per day per inmate, the Pike County facility hardly benefits from state funds.

"On all our prisoners, medical problems are our responsibility," Wheeler said. "Feeding them is our responsibility. Clothing is our responsibility. The state’s money doesn’t cover all that."

And the same is true of prisoners from Brundidge, Troy and other communities.

Wheeler feels that the only solution that would give him the extra space he needs for prisoners would be to build a new facility. With strict guidelines regulating what each facility must have in place, Wheeler said prisoners currently don’t have access to the things all new jails must, by law, provide.

"We have no exercise yard," he said. "That’s tough on a lot of them. They sit all day with nowhere to go and nothing to do. A lot of them want to stay in shape and need physical exercise to be healthy."

Another missing element is a law library.

"These prisoners don’t have conveniences like that here," he said.

That poses a problem, Wheeler says, because many of the prisoners in the jail are from the local community. These people, he believes, would benefit from jail not being such a terrible experience that it hardens them more.

"We are dealing with a tremendous need," he said. "We are doing as good as we can do with what we have, but there’s still a need."

This need would be a facility that could house 150 prisoners and that would meet federal specifications if Wheeler had his way.

"We are going to have to address this over the long-term," he said. "We have to look at where we are and where we think we’ll be in 20 years."

And statewide totals indicate incarceration rates are still climbing.