Oct. 15—For the first time since January 2020, Haywood County is preparing to open the Jail Annex, a facility with a stated occupancy of 40 inmates that is seldom used because of the staffing and security issues it presents.
Severe overcrowding at the jail, however, along with a recent COVID cluster, has prompted the Sheriff's Office to transfer 19 female inmates to the annex.
In a Thursday interview, Christopher said one 24-unit pod is reserved for female inmates, so moving them to the annex frees space.
"We felt moving females to the annex would be easier than taking males because most of our males unfortunately have higher criteria of felonies or crimes associated with more violence," he said.
There are currently eight COVID-positive inmates in the jail, seven males and one female. All are being housed in medical isolation units.
A new state prison edict is making the overcrowding even worse because there is now a mandatory 14-day hold after a negative COVID test, a requirement for a second COVID test and then another two-day wait before a prisoner will be accepted for Department of Corrections placement.
The change was made three weeks ago and Christopher said he is in the process of finding out whether the state will pay the $40 a day fee to have them stay in Haywood through the quarantine period.
"We're holding 13 sentenced inmates that are going through the stages of quarantine period that could have already been starting to serve their sentence with DOC," he said.
Christopher said the Waynesville fire marshal authorized the temporary reopening of the annex as long as deputies or trained detention personnel are stationed at the two exit doors and fire watch/detention center protocols are followed, Christopher indicated.
Razor wire was also added to the facility to make it more secure.
A nagging problem
Christopher has been prodding county commissioners to expand jail capacity as the limits of the current facility continue to exceed the 109 available pods. The number of inmates has been in the 120-125 range off and on for several years, a number jail administrators are able to juggle by keeping some in a holding area until they bond out or a pod is available.
There have been plenty of creative solutions put in place through the years, including the Haywood Pathways Center that provides in-jail counseling and a place for inmates to stay upon release as they work toward a recovery path; an expanded jail ministry, and pre-trial programs aimed at keeping individuals out of jail.
The pre-trial release program could be making the problem worse, Christopher said in a recent interview because failure to appear warrants/incarcerations rose dramatically.
The growing jail population has put the county on track for a $16.5 million expansion that will boost jail capacity by 145. The necessary architecture and engineering work is underway and expanded capacity is still several years off.
Meanwhile, the sheriff's office is grappling to do everything possible to manage the increasingly challenging situation.
"I think jails are no different than churches, businesses, schools and people's houses," Christopher said. "We all are facing tough vitals when it comes to managing this and how to keep people as safe as we possibly can."
Nationally, more law enforcement officers have passed away from COVID than any other reason since the virus became an issue, he said. "The issue is definitely on our minds and it will continue to be."