Keys to the Escambia County Jail look to be changing hands. County officials are preparing to inherit operations of the facility from Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan by October.
The county commission made the decision to assume jail operations after weeks of fruitless negotiations with the sheriff, and in the face of a federal mandate to address concerns detailed in a recently completed U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
The decision came down to dollars—the commission is betting county staff can satisfy DOJ for a few million less than the sheriff is willing to try.
Regardless of who operates the jail, or how much money it takes, something has to be done quickly. The feds are waiting.
As county staff got the green light to begin scrambling together the transition, Escambia County Commission Chairman Gene Valentino offered up a pep talk.
“No blinking on this one,” he told them. “This has got to work like clockwork.”
Negotiations: A Contact Sport
The county jail has problems. That’s not antidotal, that’s official. The issues have been detailed in multiple studies commissioned by the county and, more importantly, the DOJ investigation that wrapped up last month.
Investigators raised concerns about prisoner-on-prisoner violence and staff-on-prisoner uses of force, the decades-long practice of segregating black prisoners into black-only housing units—this recently changed, and inadequate access to mental health services and medications. While the DOJ noted that Morgan had improved the facility since he came on the scene, the investigation also verified concerns about understaffing—the most costly of the issues surrounding the jail.
Morgan—who operates the jail on behalf of the county as per a 1994 agreement—had already raised the staffing issues, telling the county he needed a hundred additional correctional officers. He raised eyebrows and dropped jaws down at the county complex when he turned in a proposed budget that was $18 million higher than last year, in part, to fund the additional officers.
The county commission, along with Interim County Administrator George Touart, balked at the request. After the DOJ findings were released, Valentino joined the county’s negotiating team to continue trying to hammer out an agreement with Morgan to operate the jail.
Negotiations didn’t go well. And off the court, it was even worse. Valentino went to WEAR and said he had heard that jail employees were playing on their laptops on the job. Morgan then threatened to open an investigation, which led to an awkward trip to the state attorney’s office for a sworn statement where the chairman said he had “misspoke.”
“We have sat and we have probably beat to death so many ideas it’s not funny,” Touart finally reported to the board.
In order to meet the sheriff’s budgetary threshold—$5.2 million—the interim administrator contends the commission would need to raise taxes. With the exception of Commissioner Lumon May, there is no appetite for that.
Briefly, the option of privatizing the jail was considered. Valentino and Touart took some meetings. But that is apparently off the table now.
Touart has assured commissioners that he can bring the jail up to snuff by using $2.6 million previously budgeted for county employees’ cost-of-living increases. That’s the option the commission is going with.
“It seems to me, we don’t have much choice but to accept the jail and try to run it,” said Commissioner Wilson Robertson.
Into the Money Pit
There are certainly cold feet on the commission. Not everyone seemed sold that the county was making the right move. Commissioner May never did go along.
“I’m not convinced,” May told the other commissioners. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
Commissioner Steven Barry was also rather hesitant. He wanted more specifics on the math.
“I’m not at all comfortable leaving just a blank, take-care-of-it-Mr. Administrator,” Barry said.
Touart laid out a loose plan. He offered no firm numbers, but said he thought there would be enough money to address the staffing concerns at the jail and still give employees half of the proposed cost-of-living increases.
The plan entails jail operations being placed under the county’s corrections department, and slowly phasing in additional correctional officers. There are also plans to reduce the need for more jail staff by fully utilizing available beds at the county’s road prison facility, as well as coordinating with the judiciary to take more advantage of prevention programs and other front-end aspects of the justice system. Additionally, Touart said the county plans to cut expenses by contracting out jail medical services to local hospitals.
When commissioners pressed for assurances from county staff that the transition could be accomplished—and DOJ satisfied—for the price tag Touart was proposing, they were met with nervous optimism.
“My opinion is,” Budget Director Amy Lavoy explained to the commission, “regardless of who runs this jail, it is an absolute money pit.”
Double or Nothing?
Escambia County now strives to make the math work, and come up with a plan to present to DOJ. Tasks that Touart has a lot riding on.
“Basically puts your career on the line,” noted Commissioner Robertson. “Because you said, ‘I know I’m sticking my neck out, and I can make it work.’ Is that what you said this morning?”
“Commissioner, there’s no question that the auspice to get this done is on the administrator’s position,” Touart replied.
The interim administrator returned to his post last fall. He’s applied for the permanent position—a move that’s triggered considerable public outcry, due to ethical questions that surrounded Touart during his previous stint with the county.
On the night the commission decided to take on the jail, a citizen linked the decision to Touart.
“By not coming up with a plan, by not coming up with details, Mr. Touart has ensured his employment,” protested Jacqueline Rogers.
Commissioners assured her there was no connection.
“The two issues don’t have anything to do with each other. The county administrator search is moving forward,” said Barry. “So, I do take exception that one decision necessitates the other. I would certainly hope that we’re capable of making multiple decisions during this same time period.”
“Mr. Barry took some of the words right out of my mouth,” agreed Commissioner Robinson. “I think they’re two totally different issues.”