The Mobile County Commission is considering whether to borrow $24.5 million for capital projects, but the vast majority of it is already earmarked for improvements in Mobile Metro Jail to help resolve a 14-year-old Department of Justice investigation into the facility.
According to Mobile County Commission President Merceria Ludgood, the county plans to put $15 million up to address “deficiencies” outlined in a National Institute for Jail Operations (NIJO) audit conducted in 2015.
In a statement to Lagniappe in July, commissioners said they were working with Sheriff Sam Cochran to implement the recommended physical improvements — including upgrades to areas that service the mental health and medical needs of local inmates.
“Our priorities are to expand our existing medical wing to include a designated mental health wing and to add more cells for inmates with mental health issues,” Cochran said. “We also want to expand the docket room and our intake area. We think those can be done at the same time.”
With statewide reductions in mental health services, Metro has had to adapt over the years to serve mentally ill inmates. According to Cochran, corrections officers are sometimes forced to isolate those inmates in cells initially designed for multiple people.
Cochran says those could be freed up with the addition of a dedicated mental health wing.
The county has already put $1.7 million into the jail this year to improve an outdated security camera system that hadn’t been updated since the 1980s and was missing cameras in key areas like those housing inmates on suicide watch.
As mentioned above, many of the same issues addressed in these capital expenditures have been highlighted by the DOJ in an ongoing inquiry into the jail that began in 2003.
As recently as 2009, the DOJ described the mental and physical health services at Metro as “grossly” and sometimes “constitutionally” inadequate, though Cochran — who took office after the investigation was launched — told Lagniappe many of those issues have been addressed.
Yet, after 14 years, the DOJ investigation remains unresolved.
“They have attempted to get us to accept some type of consent decree, which I have opposed each and every time based on the advice of our attorneys,” Cochran said. “We’ve taken the stance that we’re not in violation of any constitutional standards. They’ve not brought any kind of lawsuit against us, but we have agreed to work with them, and they’ve since taken many of their concerns off the table.”
For instance, Cochran said one of the DOJ’s concerns early on was the level of overcrowding at Metro and the average population has dropped significantly in recent years. He also claimed the concerns with inmate health care were addressed when MCSO brought in a contractor, NaphCare, to manage those services.
While Cochran said the DOJ investigation wasn’t the primary reason for moving forward with the planned jail renovations, he said he’d like to resolve its remaining issues, even if the required improvements have to be done in stages.
“What the county is doing is a big help, but at the end of the day, they only have so much money,” Cochran said. “We’re doing the best we can with the money that’s available to us.”
911 Board shakeup
Commissioners recently strayed from an unwritten practice of reappointing board members to the Mobile County Communications District who wish to continue their service. While there have been many changes to the board’s makeup in recent years, most occurred after a resignation or when a member whose term was expiring asked to not be reappointed.
However, Commissioners recently booted Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver after serving on the board for more than a decade and despite his requests to continue serving. In October, Oliver was replaced on the board by Assistant County Administrator Glenn Hodge by a unanimous vote of the commission.
Yet, the reasons for the the change remain unclear. Only one commissioner responded to a Lagniappe inquiry about why Oliver wasn’t reappointed, but still deflected the question.
“I have the utmost confidence in Glenn,” Commissioner Connie Hudson wrote via email. “He’ll be a great addition to the board and will keep the County Commissioners well informed.”
While replacing Oliver might be unusual, it was not unexpected. It has long been rumored Oliver would not remain on the board due to his very public criticisms of a $39 million contract MCCD awarded to Harris Corporation in 2013 for the construction of its new radio system.
One of the first to openly criticize the deal, Oliver was instrumental in launching the internal investigation of the project that led to renegotiations with Harris and a $5 million price reduction.
Oliver had also written the Commission directly with complaints about a “lack of financial accountability” on the MCCD board — specifically citing a $22,000-per month maintenance contract with Hurricane Electronics the company subsequently cut in half.
Hurricane also quietly maintained a private antenna on an MCCD radio tower for years at no cost, but after Oliver continued to bring the issue up at public board meetings, the company had it removed and retroactively paid MCCD $32,625 for the use of its tower.
When asked about not being reappointed, though, Oliver didn’t suggest those incidents motivated the decision. However, comments Oliver made in August suggest he was already concerned about the end of his most recent term, which expired in October.
At the time, Oliver interjected at the end of meeting to ask MCCD Director Charlie McNichol what the “historic tradition” was when a board member’s term is set to expire. McNichol said, “In most cases, if they’re willing to continue serving, [the commissioners] reappoint them.”
“You know mine is coming up in October,” Oliver replied. “I intend to continue serving.”
Despite not being given the opportunity, Oliver praised Hodge as “a good appointment” who would give the Commission “one of their own” on the board. He also said he’s fine with the way things worked out and pleased with the direction MCCD is heading.
“The truth of the matter is, the mismanagement going on with this large project — all those matters have been addressed. The monies not being used wisely have been recovered or some service or product was retrieved for them,” he added. “The past is dead: Let’s bury the dead and move on.”