Aging county jail needs an overhaul

OKEECHOBEE — The county jail needs an overhaul in order to make it meet the needs of the community.

There have been three county jails, at one time or another, all within close proximity to where the sheriff’s office stands today. The one that stands now was built in 1985-86, said Sheriff Noel E. Stephen, and then was occupied in ’87. Prior to that one, we had the one which is currently occupied by the property appraiser and tax collector, and before that, there was the old, old jail which was the red brick jail. It was on the opposite corner and was torn down.

“History, as I understand it, is that the old jail, occupied by Celeste and Mickey (tax collector and property appraiser offices), was not satisfying the jail population in the early and mid-eighties,” said the sheriff. “At that time, as I understand it, the state came in and told Sheriff John Collier that a new jail had to be built to properly house the inmates, and that’s when they started construction of this building.”

When Sheriff Stephen started as a deputy with the sheriff’s department in 1987, the jail had approximately 175 beds. There were two housing units built for men — one for misdemeanors and one for felonies. The misdemeanor side was all open dormitory style, and the felony side had individual cells. It housed the rougher population. The females had a housing unit inside the main administrative building of the jail, and so did the juveniles.

In the past, the state prison system monitored and governed the jails and how they operated by a code of standards, but that changed in the mid-nineties, and now, the Department of Corrections no longer does it. Florida adopted its own model jail standards, and jails check each other. They send inspectors to classes to take care of security, medical, every component and facet to do with a jail, and then these inspectors go around to the other jails to check them.

The Florida Code of Model Jail Standards also outlines that they keep their demographics out of sight and sound of one another. This means that adult males have to be housed away from the sight and sound of adult females and away from juveniles. Juveniles have to be away from each other and from adults. “It makes it very taxing at times to have four different groups of people that you have to have out of sight and sound of one another,” said Sheriff Stephen.

Over the years, the male population began to grow, so the 175 beds was no longer adequate. They began double bunking some of the bed space where they could. As far as the sheriff knows, the jail has the only building in Okeechobee County with a basement, and the lower units in the housing unit are built below the water table. This causes a lot of problems when the wet season arrives each year, he explained. They have trouble with water intrusion which is not healthy, and it also causes rusting of the pipes.

The pipes in the building are cast iron, and they are eroding after more than 30 years of use. Control mechanisms for the jail doors are beginning to malfunction, and they no longer make replacement parts, such as gears and chains.

Another problem they are struggling with is that their female population is growing at an alarming rate. “It used to be that our male population was 90%,” he said. “We’d have 7 or 8% female population and the rest juvenile. Our female dorm houses 24 females. Today, my jail population was 259, and I had 48 females. I’ve had to house females inside one of the male dorms just so I can have adequate room.”

They are struggling with having enough toilets and showers for all the inmates as well. “With the Florida Model Jail Standard, there is a ratio of inmates to toilets and inmates to showers that we are not conforming to,” he said, “but we are grandfathered in because our building is so old.”

There are several things we are dealing with,” he said, “the deterioration of a 35-year-old building; the non-support and inability to get parts for some of our mechanical stuff. We have 35-year old water heads and sinks that we can’t control the water flow, so they get to use all the hot water they want to. Our utility bills are outrageous. Some of them use a hot shower to detox and stand under it for hours on end, and we can’t control it. In a newer facility, it’s all computerized so you can control the water use. There’s a lot of things dictating the need for a jail expansion or a new jail.”

Sheriff Stephen is of the opinion that building a new jail somewhere else would cost much more money than just adding on to the one he already has and then renovating the existing jail. “I think the least expensive and most benefit is to add another housing unit to our footprint here,” he said.

The decision will be made sometime over the next few months.

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