Pensacola, Florida
Saturday December 16th 2017

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Tent City Jail?

By Duwayne Escobedo

The Escambia County Commission wants a solution. It wants it cheap, and it wants it fast.

Commission chair Doug Underhill recently proposed the county build a “tent city” jail to house its overflow of prisoners.

After all, the county lost its detention center when a flood in April 2014 led to an explosion that destroyed the facility and killed two inmates. A new $134-million jail is currently in the bid process to find a contractor and estimated to take another three, maybe four, years to complete.

Plus, once the new jail is built and ready for Escambia’s prisoners it’s projected to be bursting at the seams almost immediately.

Walton County intends to give Escambia County back the more than 260 inmates it has housed since the explosion by the end of June. The county has exceeded the useful life of its old, outdated jail built in two phases in 1982 and 1984 and last renovated in 2003. Built initially to house 820 inmates, more than 900 occupy the county jail today.

Commissioner Underhill has said the county budget can no longer afford the $5.98 million price tag for housing inmates outside the county like it did in 2016. The county used up all the federal grants and insurance money from the CBD explosion it received to cover the cost over the past two years.

That’s why he recommended at the commission’s May 25 public meeting that a tent city as a “creative” and “unique” solution for housing prisoners.

“…it’s legal, and if it’s good enough for the troops in Afghanistan, it’s good enough for people who violate the law. But anything, we can’t afford to take a $5 million hit next year and continue the status quo.”

Underhill reiterated later in the meeting that he was not “adverse” to the idea.

“I’ve lived in a Connex box in a 120-degree desert and was proud to do it with the American flag on my shoulders, so, you know, it won’t kill anybody,” he told his fellow commissioners. “And as long as it does not kill anybody or violate their civil rights, it is an option that needs to be on the table.”

A Non-Starter for Some
Those statements have gotten him in hot water with others in the community. Although, Commissioner Jeff Bergosh expressed support for it in the May 25 public meeting, District 3 Commissioner Lumon May denounced building an outside, open-air jail in Pensacola.

May said high medical costs already plague the county’s detention system, which houses prisoners, many of whom are awaiting trial, an average of 39 days.

“I don’t think outside would be the best environment for our inmates,” May said. “We have a responsibility to be humane. Many prisoners are not guilty. They are awaiting trial. Quite candidly, I can’t be supportive of tents.”

ACLU of Florida Northern Regional Director Sara Latshaw said Escambia County should reform its money bail system to reduce the number of inmates. In fact, detention officials have said the inability of detainees to pay their bonds was a big reason many of them were incarcerated.

“The ‘tent city jail’ model, which was pioneered by notorious civil rights violator Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona, was a failure,” Latshaw said. “It is being dismantled now after having been found to be costly and not a deterrent to crime.”

She added, “And besides being a degrading and humiliating way to treat those who are presumed innocent, as pre-trial jail detainees are, it’s still not a permanent solution. The individuals housed there would still need to have somewhere to go in case of extreme weather such as hurricanes or extreme cold.”

The new Maricopa County sheriff, Paul Penzone, began dismantling in May the tent city jail, which some called “hell on earth.” Arpaio erected the tents in 1993,  and it routinely made the list of the 50 craziest prisons in the nation.

Sheriff Penzone called the seven-acre facility a “circus” rather than a crime deterrent in the Arizona Republic. Tearing it down will save the Arizona taxpayers about $4.5 million a year because it was not operating at full capacity, he said.

“When I say improvements, it is about efficiencies, it is about professionalism, it’s about effectiveness so that we can run a fundamentally sound and safe facility that is not a burden to the taxpayers or our partners,” Penzone told the media.

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa County Major Randy Tifft, who oversees corrections, said a so-called “Tent City” could be successful. Santa Rosa’s jail housed up to 90 inmates from Escambia County until April.

But Tifft emphasized it’s only a “temporary solution” and depends on the type of construction.

“There are so many variations, but it can be successful on a short-term basis,” Tifft said.

A ‘Dangerous’ Option
Barry Beroset, a criminal defense attorney for four decades, called such a jail “dangerous.” He suggested Escambia County Chief Judge Linda Nobles review pre-trial conditions as one way to alleviate overpopulation of the jail.

“There are problems with a tent city,” Beroset said. “You can’t control the climate around here. There would be sanitation and increased security problems. How would it work if lawyers wanted to visit their clients in a secure area? It’s a serious problem with no prospect of an immediate solution.”

Commissioner Underhill backed down from pushing a Tent City model when he was contacted by Inweekly after the meeting. But he stuck to his guns that some type of “temporary” jail facility must be built to house up to 500 inmates and suggested the county put it at the Road Prison in Cantonment.

“We need a temporary facility at the road camp, and we have to do it right now,” he said. “The day we open the new jail it will be above capacity. And ‘Castle Gray Skull’ has to be replaced.”

Underhill added, “We are in a pinch, a pinch of our own design. We created this crisis, and three years later we still don’t have a solution for incarcerating our inmates here. I hold myself accountable for that. We have phenomenal partners helping us out in our time of crisis.”