Pensacola, Florida
Friday October 31st 2014

Follow the Blog

On Sale:

Archives

The Big House and the Bigger Picture

The Cost of Escambia’s Justice System
By Jeremy Morrison

The sound of a jail door closing is deafening, yet hushed. A noise observed in silence—the steel sliding and colliding against a concrete wall, the severity of mechanical clicks that assure freedom has slipped out of the room.

“Neat sound when those doors shut,” notes one of the supervisors at the Escambia County Jail.

The supervisor follows Colonel Brett Whitlock through the maze. Past the visitation windows and toward the infirmary.

The Escambia County Jail is lit like a horror movie, sometimes dim and others stark. Shadows lose their bearings walking down the hall. Faces press against glass windows in heavy steel doors, an inmate begins to caterwaul.

“Unstable people,” Whitlock said.

“To say the least,” agrees a younger officer, “unstable people.”

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan gave Whitlock the go-ahead to give the jail tour. He wanted the facility head to point out the jail’s wear and tear, and allow his employees to speak about the impacts of current staffing levels.

“Manpower shortage is both an officer and inmate safety issue,” Morgan had said in his office.

A couple of days earlier, the sheriff had turned in his proposed budget. Coming in nearly $19 million higher than last year, the budget was blowing some minds down at the Escambia County administrative offices.

“I appreciate he’s got problems,” said Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson. “But we’ve all got problems. We don’t got the money.”

Not one to shy away from budgetary disputes, the sheriff doesn’t appear to be flinching. He said he expects to have his budget fulfilled—intending to not only increase staffing levels, but also increase pay—and cites past studies, as well as an ongoing federal investigation to make his case.

“If you refuse to do this and we have an unexplained death in the jail, what do you think is gonna happen?” Morgan said. “The Department of Justice will be all over you and they’ll sue the county until their eyes bleed.”

Reception of the ‘Ridiculous’

Escambia County Commission Chairman Gene Valentino stood out front of the Grand Reserve cigar store across from the county administrative complex. The sheriff had just dropped off his budget and the chairman was describing his commission as “hopping mad.”

“Listen to 1620 in the morning,” he advised.

Valentino took to the AM airwaves the next day. Later in the afternoon, he would elaborate.

“We’re stunned on the amount,” Valentino explained. “No sheriff has come forward with such a ridiculous request as this.”

Morgan is requesting a $95,057,838. That’s an $18,864,522 increase.

“Everybody has a right to request whatever they want for the budget,” said Commissioner Lumon May. “But requesting it and getting it are two different things.”

The sheriff is visibly irritated by such talk. In his view, there is black and there is white, there is right and there is wrong—why is everyone but him babbling gibberish?

“I keep expecting the clocks to start dripping off the table and melting off the wall,” Morgan said, describing Valentino’s radio interview as “another Salvador Dali moment.”

The sheriff is apparently shocked that his budget request is being met with such resistance. His public information officer, Sena Maddison, said that most counties approach a sheriff’s budget with a how-much-do-you-need-here-you-go attitude.

“I can tell you, ‘We don’t have the money’ is the wrong answer,” said Morgan.

The sheriff defends his budget proposal as necessary to address longstanding issues at the sheriff’s office and the jail facilities under its control. He wants to hire more staff for the jail and points to pay discrepancies between his officers and those working at the county’s Road Prison. He’s also aiming to pay sheriff office employees the same holiday and overtime benefits as county employees.

The sheriff’s budget request includes an additional $6,324,157 for the hiring of 95 new employees for the jail; an estimated $4,340,002 for overtime and $3,952,930 for holiday pay; and $658,409 in order to offer starting detention deputies a two percent pay increase.

“It’s not numbers we just pulled out of the air,” Morgan said. “They’ve taken the position that the budget is outrageous. Based on what?”

The commissioners raise their objections to the sheriff’s request against the backdrop of an increasingly crunched county budget. At more than $76 million last year, the sheriff’s budget was already the largest chunk of the general fund.

“If you cut another $18 million out of the county budget,” explained Robinson, “we don’t have anywhere to go.”

With the exception of the sheriff’s office, the county’s other four constitutional offices saw decreases in their budgets last year. Morgan’s budget stayed the same, although he did eat an expiring $1.2 million grant used to hire additional officers.

“They don’t have my job,” Morgan said, brushing aside comparisons to other constitutional county budgets. “Law enforcement can’t be compared to other county jobs.”

Commissioner Wilson Robertson said he doubted the county could shoulder any budget increases this year.

“If the sheriff was asking for $2 or $3 million, I don’t think we could do it,” he said. “Anything in the magnitude he’s asking is ridiculous. Fact of business, I don’t think we can give any increases this year.”

Dog-Tired

Inside the control room at the end of the hallway, there are two detention deputies. They are charged with overseeing the main jail’s infirmary.

Both agree that the jail could benefit from additional staff—“we’re definitely shorthanded”—and talk about how no one can take time off and everyone is always thinking of quitting or retiring.

“When I go home at night, I’m no use to anyone, not even myself. I’m just that dog-tired,” said one of the deputies. “It’s like one person doing three jobs.”

“That’s just the way it is,” said the other deputy. “—I’ve seen worse, I used to work at a state prison.”

Continuing on through the jail, Whitlock pointed out water-stained ceiling tiles and explained how the locking mechanisms on the doors were “worn out.” In the facility’s records room, a blue tarp shields shelves of files from leaks overhead.

“This is the jail,” Whitlock said. “What you’ve got here is 1982.”

Maddison noted she was in high school when the jail was built. A young deputy laughed and said she had been a toddler.

“I was a tug boat captain,” Whitlock lost himself for a moment in time.

The main jail—built in two phases, one in 1982, and the next as a result of a lawsuit in 1984—is an aging beast. It is constant upkeep and repairs.

The county is in the process of planning for upgrades to the main jail. They plan to pump about $8 million into the effort.

“That’s going to go a long way,” Whitlock said. “We’re hoping to overhaul our doors and plumbing.”

Plumbing is a major concern at the jail. One deputy recalled opening an elevator door recently, only to be deluged with sewage.

“I don’t know the last time you had toilet water fall on your head,” he said, “but it’s not a nice thing.”

But the sheriff’s proposed budget does not include funds for jail restorations. Insofar as operations at the jail are concerned, the budget primarily addresses staffing concerns.

This is a concern shared by staff and supervisors at the jail.

“I’ve got to have a certain amount of people here,” said one supervisor. “Beyond that, it becomes dangerous.”

One jail deputy described the process involved in escorting inmates to the recreation yard. At a ratio of 90 to six, she said, it proves an unnerving trek down the stairwell.

“If they decide to go nuts?” she asked.

On each floor of the jail is a “pod” of cells. A detention deputy watches over the collection of cells from a central room located in the middle. Another deputy—an escort—is ideally there too, but is often unavailable due to a staffing shortage.

“Everyday I start short,” said one supervisor. “When I say short, I’ve got posts that aren’t being manned.”

The supervisor said the shortage contributes to an overall tense environment.

“The officers are stressed out,” he said, “they pass that on to the prisoners.”

The IOU MOU

The problems at the Escambia County Jail are nothing new. Two county studies conducted over the last few years point to infrastructure and staffing issues.

About ten years ago, population levels had reached a point well beyond the seams. The number of inmates being housed between the main jail and central booking, which have a combined capacity of 1,456, hovered just below a couple of thousand.

“We were grossly overpopulated,” said Sheriff Morgan. “We had two on bunks and one on the floor.”

“Way over,” said Whitlock. “In 2007, we almost hit 2,000.”

Over at the main jail, a 22-year detention deputy—“I might’ve been here a minute”—recalled the peak years.

“We were so overcrowded at one point,” he said. “I would say 2003, 2004 it was just too many folks. You couldn’t put ‘em anywhere. People were sleeping on the floor.”

These days, the jail population is smaller. In early May, the population stands at 1,364—that’s 634 in central booking and 730 in the main jail.

“They don’t overbook us anymore,” said the deputy.

In 2011, the National Center for State Courts and Justice Concepts Incorporated provided Escambia County with a study—commissioned in FY2007-2008—that examined the area’s overall justice system.

As for the jail, the study noted the facility’s structural needs and also recommended that 95 new detention staff members be brought aboard; a more recent study in 2012 related to planned improvements at the jail and also noted the staffing needs, citing the previous report.

It was with this 2011 report that Morgan was armed when he approached the county in March about some “very significant issues regarding the operation and funding of the Escambia County Jail.” He pointed also to the U.S. Department of Justice investigation, begun in 2009, into jail operations and suggested a discussion be held concerning the 1994 memorandum that threw operation of the jail to the sheriff.

“I’m not required to run the jail,” Morgan said, following the release of his budget request. “What I want the county to understand, you can’t give me this facility and then underfund it.”

In a March 14 letter to the county, Gerry Champagne, Morgan’s general counsel, suggested that the 1994 MOU was obsolete and said the agreement should be renegotiated.

The attorney proposed a new MOU, which allows Morgan to withdraw from overseeing the jail if the county fails to meet certain thresholds tied to funding, staffing, pay and infrastructure improvements. The agreement would need to be renewed annually.

Valentino has said he felt “threatened” by Morgan’s approach. Escambia County Interim Administrator George Touart has called the sheriff’s correspondence a “demand letter.”

County staff has also disputed portions of the 2011 study. Describing the report as containing “material deficiencies,” the county has withheld $35,304 of a total $242,362 contract.

“We don’t support the study,” said Valentino. “We think the study’s incomplete. We don’t understand why the sheriff would be using such an outdated document.”

The 2011 study assessed the entirety of the county’s justice system. It looked at the domain under the sheriff’s charge, as well as the judiciary and the county’s Department of Community Corrections, which includes aspects such as pretrial services and the Road Prison.

Concerns raised by the county pertained entirely to the study’s findings related to this latter realm, the diversion realm. The report suggested that the involved parties—the sheriff’s office, the offices of the state attorney and public defenders, and the county— “must commit to improving the delivery of services at the front end of the criminal justice system.”

“An effective Pretrial Services function can save counties millions of dollars annually,” the report’s authors wrote to county in response to staff’s concerns. “Without question, the pretrial services’ role is catalytic to the process. JCI has assisted many jurisdictions in the improvement of the ‘front end’ processes, those appreciating millions of dollars through the demand reduction of jail bed days, significantly diminishing the numbers of individuals incarcerated, and increasing the community based supervision options the latter a fraction of the jail per diems.”

County staff contends that pretrial issues raised by the report were either off base, or out of date, with the county supposedly having already addressed the concerns noted in the report. Escambia has requested that the company revise its report prior to being paid in full; the consulting company, meanwhile, has stuck to its original recommendations concerning the front-end.

In an April 12 letter to the sheriff, Touart explained the county’s position on the 2011 report.

“The fact that JCI and NCSC have made material errors regarding their evaluation of County Pretrial Services is a completely separate issue from their evaluation of other aspects of the court system, jail operations, inmate population and staffing needs,” Touart wrote.

No Appetite for Tax

Cut to the nine of spades, a deck of cards sat on a metal table, surrounded by metal stools, all attached to the floor. From behind bars, inmates either watch or ignore a community television tuned to reruns of “American Dad.”

In a corner cell, an inmate wearing blue shorts and a white t-shirt—purchased at the jail in an effort to escape the standard issued, and free, jumpsuits—smiles and holds out a sketching from between his bars, giving his art a momentary breath of freedom.

“It’s a tribal cross, with a Celtic weave,” the inmate explains his drawing. “Three-dimensional.”

Whitlock leads the tour on. Into Phase II, pass the break room—“nobody’s in there on break because nobody ever gets to take their break”—and into the elevator.

After an uncomfortably long pause, Whitlock looks at the supervisor manning the elevator buttons. The man pushes the buttons to no avail, and then radios for assistance.

“Elevator is stuck on Phase II, if you can help us out,” he said, before shrugging off the delay. “It happens a lot. This week, I’d say 10 times.”

In a few minutes, the elevator doors open and Whitlock heads for the stairs.

“You put miles on your boots,” he said, “it’s not a sit-down job.”

Whitlock has put a lot of correctional facility miles on his boots since his tugboat days. He mentions along the tour that it happens to be the day of his 20th anniversary.

That means Whitlock’s been here quite a while. Since before they shot the guy off the rec-yard wall as he tried to escape. Since before the 1994 memorandum that placed the jail under the sheriff’s authority.

Commissioner Robertson’s been around since then too.

“I was on the board several terms when we ran the jail,” he recalled. “It was somewhat of a nightmare.”

The commissioner knows it’s always a possibility that the county could again tend to the facility.

“He may dump the jail back on us, I don’t know,” Robertson said.

Morgan has said he doesn’t want to see the jail facilities go back under the county. He describes the jail as “appropriately a law enforcement function.”

The sheriff—who rallied voters with a battle cry of fiscal conservatism—sidestepped the notion of raising taxes to generate the funds necessary to meet his budget request. He said he “wouldn’t tell the county how to do their job.”

“I wouldn’t tell the county how to get the money,” he continued. “I would hope, as in any plan, that everything is on the table.”

The mention of a possible tax increase tends to make county commissioners queasy. No one’s got an appetite.

“I wouldn’t vote for that, of course,” Robertson said, explaining that any such tax would need to be put before the voters.

Chairman Valentino is on the same page.

“The last thing I want to be talking about right now is tax increases,” he said. “And I think the other commissioners feel the same way.”

Wage War

Heading over to the main jail, Whitlock walked down the sidewalk and to his Impala in the parking lot.

“You don’t have a reserved parking space?” joked Maddison. “I bet Gordon Pike does.”

This appears to be a popular budget-based game at the sheriff’s office. Earlier, Maddison and Morgan had played a round.

The sheriff had asked his PIO her salary, and then compared it to the higher pay of the county’s main PIO. This comparison—holding up his highest 50 paid employees to the 50-highest paid of the county administration—is what Morgan points to when defending his intention to up salaries at the sheriff’s office.

“The county has told me—every year I’ve been in office—has told me that all county employees are important,” Morgan said.

A chunk of Morgan’s proposed budget increase is to cover pay raises. He is asking for almost $9 million dollars to fund the two percent pay raise for starting detention deputies and to be able to pay sheriff employees on par with county employees when it comes to overtime and holiday.

The sheriff is also considering raises for several upper level employees. He is looking at between five and 15 percent hikes—called incentive pay—for several senior commanders, commanders and colonels.

“My people are grossly underpaid,” Morgan said. “There is no parity.”

Commissioner Robertson said he believed there were pay disparities, but suggested they pertained to some employees being “overpaid for the work they’re doing.”

“There needs to be a disparity study if you’re going to start giving raises,” the commissioner said.

Chairman Valentino wondered, “What amounts of cash they’re sitting on that the county commission may or may not know about.” He also said officials might need to reassess Escambia’s justice system as a whole.

“It’s clear to me that we must think out of the box and be more creative about the matters at the jail and the corrections system in general,” Valentino said.

Resolved Robots

Depending on whom you ask, Sheriff Morgan is either a bona-fide 10-gallon hat hero or the most arrogant man to waltz into town since Andrew Jackson. Maybe both, or neither.

Whatever he is, he puts a bur under some people’s saddles.

“People want you to jump,” said Commissioner Robinson. “They want to force you into making a decision today. That’s not good government.”

Morgan sees it differently. He feels his needs are non-negotiable. He has threatened to take his budget to Tallahassee in hopes of having Gov. Rick Scott resolve the dispute.

“We’re preparing a budget to go to the governor,” Morgan said. “I’m not going to allow the county to play poker with me anymore.”

This tact seems abrasive to Robinson.

“Everybody’s trying to jump to a decision,” he cautioned. “This is a process. We don’t have to come up with anything until August. That’s a long way away.”

But Morgan sees it as his duty to demand the funds he feels are necessary to maintain the facilities under his charge. To dispute that derails the conversation.

He points to the ongoing DOJ investigation, and suggests that county officials work with the feds to hammer out a “strategic get-well plan” to address issues in the local justice system.

“It’s fun to politically attach my face and name to this ‘outrageous’ budget,” Morgan said. “I’m the bearer of bad news. You know, the sheriff didn’t wake up Monday morning and say, ‘Let’s inflame the county.’”

And while the sheriff shows no signs of entertaining any concessions to his requested needs, his staff understands that their work will continue regardless of who prevails budget-wise.

“We do what we have to do,” Whitlock said. “They are really good at being creative in their staffing.”

In the jail infirmary, the detention deputy agrees.

“I mean, we’ve done got this far,” he said.

Taking a break from his crackers and can of chicken salad, another jail employee gives a nod to Morgan—“I give ‘em his due, he looks out for us”—but said he also recognizes the county’s continued budget constraints—“this year coming up, who knows?”—and understands the commissioners’ position.

“That’s why I don’t blame them,” he said. “They’re doing what they got to do. Looking out for the whole county, not just here.”

As the tour ends outside the main jail, Whitlock stands in the shadow of a magnolia tree and sums it up.

We’re trying to do with what we’ve got,” he said. “I think the officers know that, but they’re getting tired. They’re not robots.”

May Day, May Day

This discussion is exhausting to Commissioner May. A raging race routed the wrong direction.

“Let’s talk about the real deal. Why aren’t we putting money into prevention,” the commissioner said. “I’m tired of putting money into expansion and capital outlay and jails. When are we going to put money into prevention?”

May’s District 3 has a high percentage of African-Americans. It’s a population that bears the disproportionate brunt of a flawed justice system. The commissioner pointed out that incarceration makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to pull their lives together after serving their time.

“I represent people on the ground with a record, who are looking for a job,” May said. “I want to stop people from going to jail.”

The commissioner said he thought funds should be directed to the front end of the justice system—“it’s much cheaper on the front end”—with community efforts being made to address the “root of the problem.” This point was also noted in the studies assessing the local justice system.

“We need to begin to have a discussion with the sheriff, the chamber of commerce and the school board—how do we curb incarceration?” May said. “Strategically looking at the problem, holistically looking at the problem is how we’re going to solve it.”

This is an expansive conversation that ripples throughout the layers of the local community. It’s a question without easy answers. Too elusive to find solutions in budgetary math.

And this is a conversation that will go on and on, certainly beyond this year’s budget season. But maybe that’s a good place for such a conversation to take firm root.

“That’s what my discussion is, my discussion is, ‘How do we begin creating opportunities for the least of them?’ That’ll be the discussion that I want to have. It’s much deeper than budgetary constraints,” May explained. “Do we really want to change? Or do we want to accept this crime, this blight as standard? I refuse to sit down and accept it.”