JAIL WOES: Sheriff: 60 year old jail ‘a danger,’ needs to be rebuilt

Published 3:00 am Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Jail administrator Kelley Barron stands in front of Pike County Jail. Barron agreed with Sheriff Russell Thomas about the need for a new jail. “We need it really bad,” she said.

Jail administrator Kelley Barron stands in front of Pike County Jail. Barron agreed with Sheriff Russell Thomas about the need for a new jail. “We need it really bad,” she said.

Pike County Sheriff Russell Thomas and his staff watched nervously last week as Hurricane Hermine snaked its way toward the coast.

Why were they so worried?

Thomas said that structural engineers who came to assess the jail warned that a good strong wind could bring the building down.

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These concerns lead to the Pike County Commission hiring architectural firm PH&J to reduce the danger and make plans for the construction of a new jail, which the firm estimates will cost up to $8 million.

Thomas said there is no other choice but to construct a new jail.

“The problem is, if you touch it, you’ve got to fix everything,” Thomas said. “The building is not up to the electrical code, heating and cooling or adequate spacing.”

Thomas was referring to the explanation by structural engineer Blackburn Daniels O’Barr, Inc. (BDO), which stated that any alterations made to the building would require the building to be brought completely up to the code for a new structure.

“It has been our experience that if the structure has to be modified then it will not be cost-effective to renovate the building,” they said in the assessment.

There has been talk since before Thomas took office about building a new jail, he said, but nothing ever came of it.

He had hoped to do a comparatively small repair job on the roof to fix a leak, but two roofing companies told him that they would not fix the roof until a structural engineer assessed the building because they didn’t believe the jail could support the weight.

“You don’t realize until you get up there how bad it is,” Thomas said. “The reality’s here now.”

The first thing that must be done at the jail is the removal of the parapet– large heavy blocks that top the jail. The parapet is “excessively deflecting inward” according to the report by BDO and was deemed a “major structural concern.”

Mortar is also being pushed out in areas due to deteriorating steel angles that add support to each floor of the building. The leaning walls helped to cause the major leaks in the roof, which resulted in corrosion in the cells.

“It’s not something any of us wanted to deal with, but it’s out of our control,” Thomas said. “It’s a danger to all of the people coming in or out. If one brick comes out it will be a major catastrophe.”

Thomas said that the ceilings are decaying, there’s rust in most of the cells and chunks of concrete have come loose in cells as well. He also said that there have been more handmade weapons found in cells recently, fashioned out of the rust.

How did the jail get in such bad shape?

It’s mostly due to old age, Thomas said, stating that this is the oldest operating jail in the state.

An unofficial assessment by PH&J also pointed to age as the major reason for the jail’s decline.

“The building was constructed in 1957, and as a 60 year old building, in our professional opinion, it has outlived it’s expected useful life,” the statement said.

When the jail was built, Thomas said, it was made to hold 40 prisoners, but currently houses around 65 on average. In past years the jail could average 75 to 90 prisoners he said.

All of those issues factor into the need for a new jail.

Many questions remain unanswered. For example, where will the money come from? And where would the new jail be built?

Thomas said he does not yet know the answer to those questions.

“I’m elected to run the jail, not build it,” Thomas said. “That’s up to the county.  If you want to maintain a jail, it’s what we have to do.”