Under pressure from the federal government, officials plan to “harden” the barracks adjacent to Mobile County Metro Jail in order to house inmates in higher security classifications there in the future.
The county barracks is the three-story building next to the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). It sits across St. Emanuel Street from the main jail and is currently used to house inmates of the lowest security priority. That includes pregnant women, work-release inmates and other “minimum security” prisoners.
Because of that, the security features and infrastructure at the barracks were not built to the same “correctional grade standards” used throughout Metro Jail. The rooms have shared bunks instead of segregated cells, and the ceilings, toilets and other features can more easily be manipulated.
However, county officials are now looking to upgrade a lot of those features so that higher-security-level inmates can be housed there in the future. Those “hardening” plans are part of a long-term effort to better segregate inmates throughout the jail and alleviate lingering problems of overcrowding.
“It’s kind of a creative solution that’s not as expensive as adding on to the jail,” Sheriff Sam Cochran told Lagniappe. “Ultimately, the jail still needs to be upgraded, but this is a quicker solution for the overcrowding problem that we’re still having and for our [new] classification system.”
While overcrowding is a concern, the upgrades to the barracks are primarily being driven by the need to implement that classification system, which the Mobile County Commission hired a consultant to develop in 2018 after years of pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division.
As Lagniappe has reported, Metro Jail has been the subject of a protracted DOJ investigation since 2003 that has led to a number of changes within the jail. However, one of the most persistent concerns investigators have raised is with the way Metro has historically grouped inmates together.
Since then, the county has had a classification system developed based on things like “criminal history, physical characteristics, age, potential vulnerability or aggression” and whether an inmate served time in state prison. Previously, Metro inmates were grouped together based solely on their booking offense.
Oliver told Lagniappe the new objective classification system “makes perfect sense” in hindsight.
“Once someone spends a couple of years in the department of corrections, their propensity for violence is going to be significantly higher, and we never considered that,” Oliver said. “Ours was always charge based, but you could be here on trespassing today and if you’ve got an arrest for armed robbery from six years ago or you spent time in state prison, you still need to be in a maximum security area.”
One of the things that slowed down the development of a new classification system, at least according to MCSO officials like Oilver and Cochran, has been the spacing limitations in the jail. It’s hard to seperate people if you don’t have anywhere to put them, and that’s why the barracks were considered.
As of last week, there were 159 inmates being housed in those barracks, which Olvier said were built to hold more than twice that. The trouble is, it seems to have the opposite problem Metro has, in that it’s proven difficult to find enough inmates who would qualify to stay in the “minimum security” barracks.
By hardening the features to meet the requirements for holding “medium security” prisoners, Oliver said as many as 380 could be kept there in the future — something he said would ultimately “help with the new classifications, help with overcrowding and reduce fights” among inmates in the main facility.
“When we embraced the idea of implementing this new objective classification system it became very clear that we needed more space and sooner rather than later,” Oliver said. “You can harden that building and upgrade that security level much faster and for much less money than you could add on to the jail.”
County Commissioners gave the go-ahead to start developing the hardening plan earlier this month, and they specifically noted in the minutes that the renovations are the result of DOJ recommendations.
Facilities Manager Tyler Martin said the process could take a year to a year and a half to complete from design to construction, though an estimated cost won’t be clear until bids on the project are received.
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