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Jail upgrades see money saved, safety increased

Posted on April 26, 2019

By Caitlan Butler
Staff Writer

Upgrades at the Union County jail are well underway and have already begun to save the county money while providing increased safety for both the inmates and correctional officers inside.

“Sometimes change is good. In this instance, it’s really going to work out for us,” said Union County Sheriff Ricky Roberts.

The Union County Sheriff’s Office considered potential upgrades throughout 2018, presenting their final proposal to the Quorum Court late last year and receiving approval for the $1.2 million project in November.

A fire that broke out in the jail’s kitchen last August also necessitated repairs and renovations that initially were not planned as part of the jail upgrades.

While weather has impacted some of the upgrades, Roberts said improvements in the jail’s facilities have helped improve life and efficiency there.

Renovations and upgrades

Upgrades at the jail included basic upgrades to the jail’s facilities, like the plumbing and heating and cooling systems, as well as technological upgrades.

About 60 percent of the plumbing upgrades have been completed, Roberts said.

Still left are shower fixtures that need to be changed. Roberts said they are waiting for more equipment to arrive before that can occur. Each inmate has a shower inside their cell, though most cells are shared by multiple inmates.

The shower upgrade will prevent inmates from flooding their cells. With the new shower fixtures, inmates will have to press a button that will run the shower for a set amount of time, about seven minutes; inmates may press the button up to about three times, but after that, the shower will not run for them any more that day unless the system is re-set by a correctional officer.

Additionally, inmates’ toilets are now unable to be flushed more than twice in a five minute period. If the inmate tries to flush more than twice in that amount of time, the toilet will be disabled from flushing for the next hour. Roberts said that will prevent inmates from purposely clogging the toilets.

Glenn Mechanical’s bids on the plumbing and air conditioning renovations were selected by the Union County Quorum Court’s jail committee. For plumbing, the bid totaled $486,900 and the air conditioning bid totaled $329,900.

Water bills have already decreased at the jail. With only slightly more than half of the upgrades completed, the jail’s bill has decreased from $4,000-$5,000 per month to $2,300 this month.

The jail is also getting new heating and cooling systems. Roberts said an electrical line has already been run and they are currently waiting to run a gas line. The new units will begin to be set in the next few weeks.

“You have to coordinate from the roofer coming in and cutting the holes and things like that, so we’re still a little ways out on our A/C,” Roberts said. “They’ll have electric air and gas heat just like I do at home.”

Those upgrades will also help to save the jail money. Currently, uninhabited areas of the jail are being heated and cooled due to the way the current system was installed; the new system will have a thermostat in a different place, which will allow the system to shut off when areas reach a designated temperature.

New sliding security doors have been implemented in several parts of the jail. Yesterday, contractors could be seen installing a new door in the booking area of the jail.

The jail’s kitchen has undergone major renovations as a result of the fire that broke out in that area last August. New ovens and stovetops have been installed, along with a fryer, industrial sized mixers and sinks. The ceiling and floor were also replaced.

“It is working well. The before and after pictures don’t even do it justice,” Roberts said.

The fire started near a large cooler that had not been used in a while, Roberts said. In that area of the kitchen, a wall was knocked out and the space is now utilized for storage.

“It’s so much nicer. Everything is accounted for,” Roberts said.

Technological upgrades

There were extensive upgrades in the jail’s information technology (IT) systems as well. Their dispatch office has changed locations within the UCSO; it now sits directly inside the part of the building that houses the jail and UCSO deputies’ offices, on the office side.

“It looks nice. It’s all computerized, everything is working well,” Roberts said. “They control access in and out of the jail and prisoner load and unload, and it really is working well.”

Since the dispatchers control access to the jail, if inmates were to ever overpower correctional officers and guards, they still would be unable to escape, Roberts said.

From the new office, dispatchers are able to view live footage from cameras located all around the facility, view what deputies are available at a given time and send them on calls and other services that have helped improve efficiency.

New cameras were installed so that dispatchers may see every part of the jail, as well as the rest of the UCSO facility, which includes a courtroom, a visitation area for inmates’ loved ones and waiting areas. Only inmates’ sleeping bunks are off camera.

“Once a person makes contact with one of our deputies, they’re on camera the whole entire time that they’re staying,” Roberts said. “Technically, you could say that from the time that officer gets out with them (an inmate) until they leave the Sheriff’s Office, they’re on camera. You can even watch the cameras and see which way they leave the parking lot.”

A new technology incorporated in the jail is a tracking system, which the county purchased from Tiger Correctional, a company that provides services specifically for prisons and jails. Tiger Correctional’s bid for the tracking system was for $34,221.

Each inmate is fitted with a bracelet when they’re booked; the bracelet cannot be removed until the inmate is released. Every time an inmate moves between rooms, begins an activity or receives assistance from jail staff, their bracelet is scanned.

“Everything he does or she does while they’re in our facility is monitored. So when they’re fed, they have a scan. When they go visit their attorney, they’re scanned. When they go see the nurse or the doctor, they’re scanned,” Roberts said.

The system also stores inmate grievances. The information gathered from the tracking system is stored both locally and off-site. Roberts said the system helps to ensure every inmate receives the care they are entitled to and correctional officers are working per jail regulations.

“It’s about accountability. There’s more accountability for our officers,” Roberts said. “It’s new technology to us … and we’re seeing where its going to pay off in the long run.”

The system has been in place for about a month so far. Roberts said inmate reaction has been mostly neutral, with a few people initially objecting to but eventually complying with the bracelets.

“No guard can tamper with it,” UCSO Capt. Richard Mitcham said. “It’s completely tamper proof.”

New radios have been an important addition for officer safety, Roberts said. The radio system has been up and running for about three weeks at this point, though there was a recent snag that has disrupted service some.

“Last Saturday, lightning hit one of our towers and right now the estimated value is between $6,000-$8,000 to fix it,” Roberts said.

Prior to the radio replacement, UCSO deputies were unable to communicate with each other or dispatch in certain areas in the county. Now, the radio is clearer, dispatch can hear better and those problem areas have mostly been corrected.

“It is the largest (county) area-wise, over 1,100 miles. We were having issues with some of our radios, not being able to communicate with our deputies, and that’s a safety issue,” Roberts said. “Since we’ve been up, we’ve only identified a couple of areas in the county where we may have some issues.”

To correct those remaining issues, Roberts said his office is considering working to join a tower or add a tower in Huttig and adding a repeater in Smackover. Calion was previously the hardest area for deputies to communicate in due to lack of service; now service there is better than it ever has been, Roberts said.

“There are still some spots in Calion that we can’t get out, but its not as much as it once was. We’re hoping that when we get the repeater put up in Smackover … we’re hoping that’s going to eliminate some of that as well in Calion,” Roberts said.

The UCSO, which includes the jail, was originally built in 1989. Since then there have been a few additions, including the courtroom and a hallway. Roberts said he was able to determine that upgrading the facilities, rather than starting from scratch and building a new jail, was much cheaper for the county.

“This is not a want. This is a need,” Roberts said. “We’re trying to make it easier for our employees and a lot safer for our employees and inmates.”

Caitlan Butler can be reached at 870-862-6611 or