Jail overcrowding

Women in the general population section of the Calhoun County Jail are crammed together in a 1,800 square-foot room. Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade said the conditions are inhumane and he hopes to rectify the issue with the help of county government. Kirsten Fiscus / The Anniston Star

Nothing about the concern swirling around the Calhoun County Jail is new. Not the overcrowding. Not the escape attempts. Not the potential inmate violence related to cramped spaces.

In truth, what happened last Sunday night isn’t surprising — though not because of jailer errors or mismanagement from Sheriff Matthew Wade. Our view is that Wade and his staff are doing the best they can with an underpaid crew and an overpopulated facility that needs enlargement or outright replacement. Wade and local law enforcement should be commended for capturing the three escaped inmates roughly 12 hours after they forced open a locked door and climbed a razor wire-covered fence.

The history of the county jail is marked by successful escapes, thwarted attempts and a handful of inmate uprisings. Regardless of the decade, congested cells, deficient buildings and a paucity of nighttime oversight have littered this jail’s past with incidents like that from last Sunday. More than a few stand out:

-- Before the Civil War, the county lockup was a wooden building in Jacksonville with a reputation for being easy to leave. Inmates on more than one occasion cut through the log walls and torched the jail as they scampered away. In a noteworthy incident in 1858, five of the jail’s eight inmates escaped.

-- The county’s first stone-and-brick jail was built in 1858 for $18,000. Two inmates escaped not long after by tunneling through a brick archway.

-- In 1900, the jail relocated south along with the courthouse when Anniston became the county seat. The sheriff used a two-story brick jail on Gurnee Avenue between 12th and 13th streets until a four-story jail was built on the north side of the courthouse in 1941. Inmates found it hardly escape-proof.

-- In 1973, three inmates broke open a third-floor door lock and escaped by sliding from the courthouse roof on a hose. In 1974, two inmates climbed through a fourth-floor roof skylight and used a hose to reach a catwalk before sliding down an exposed pipe. In 1980, 23 inmates upset over overcrowding ripped closed-circuit cameras from the wall and caused other damage. In 1982, two inmates escaped by sawing a hole in a steel cell shower and using a rope of knotted sheets to reach the street.

-- In 1983, Sheriff Roy Snead told The Star: “This (overcrowded) jail is a powderkeg and could blow at any time. We’re lucky we haven’t gotten anybody killed — staff or prisoners.” Three years later, county leaders built Snead a new jail. But little changed. Overcrowding persisted. An inmate in 1987 nearly escaped by dislodging a cinder block from a wall. An inmate in 2000 escaped through a door with a malfunctioning lock. A $1 million renovation project in 2003 beefed up security but still left the county with an outdated building crammed with too many inmates.

No one likes to talk about the county jail unless a family member is locked inside. But until lawmakers commit to enlarging the facility or building a new one, the recurring concern surrounding the Calhoun County Jail will not end. History proves it.

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