According to a March 19 report that was discussed on Tuesday at a Calhoun County Commission work session, the jail’s sprinkler system was not operational in the pink unit, where 16 to 20 maximum-security inmates are held.
It was cut off by the jail’s maintenance employee after inmates began breaking the exposed sprinkler heads, causing the unit to flood repeatedly, Sheriff Larry Amerson said. He said he was unaware of the problem until it was identified by the deputy state fire marshal.
“Fire in a jail is a serous event ... You have to be able to evacuate everybody from the jail,” Amerson said. “I was very surprised that the sprinkler system was off.”
The deputy fire marshal also found that not all of the exit signs in the building were working and that extension cords were being used for permanent wiring, but the broken sprinkler system was the most notable offense, according to State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk. He said it’s not uncommon to find similar violations in jails.
“On any given day you go to a county jail,you are walking into an environment where 90 percent of the people in that facility are incarcerated for committing criminal acts and they don’t care about violations,” Paulk said. “You’re going to find some problems.”
He said there are 67 county jails in addition to numerous city jails that must be inspected. The office of the State Fire Marshal attempts to inspect the jails each year, but with 19 deputy state fire marshals who have to investigate fires, in addition to completing inspections, that is a difficult task, Paulk said.
“We try to do it yearly. Our scheduling is dependant on the other duties of the office,” he said. “Inspecting jails takes a good amount of time.”
Calhoun County administrators could not recall when the state fire marshal last inspected the facility, but said it had been more than a year. Paulk said the problems at the jail are already being corrected.
“The jail is moving to correct those rapidly,” he said. “The sheriff’s office was very responsive.”
As of Tuesday, county administrators were working to correct jail’s problems, including the sprinkler system, but repairs could turn costly, Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner said. To ensure the problem with the sprinkler system stops, it will have to be modified or replaced.
“Now that it’s been brought to our attention we’ve just got to fix it,” Joiner said. “It’s the commission’s responsibility to do it and we will address it.”
The county commission owns the jail, while the sheriff’s office shares the responsibility in ensuring all state codes are met. The commission maintains the building and the sheriff’s office operates the jail. The sheriff and Joiner said the problems must be corrected, but said maintaining the facility will continue to be a challenge.
There is just one maintenance man for the facility, which currently holds about 440 inmates, and is at least 50 people beyond capacity. He is responsible for the jail’s electronic systems, electric needs, plumbing system and for air conditioning and heating repairs in the jail, which was built in the 1980s.
“You have a 30-year-old facility that has problems,” Joiner said. “Money is the issue here. There is not enough money to do everything you want to do. You have to do the best you can.”
Contact staff writer Laura Johnson at 256-235-3544.