Photos | Shane Rice
On a warm afternoon earlier this month, Mobile County Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver walked into a crowded wedge housing dozens of local inmates and asked an unusual favor.
“This is not a trick I swear, but we’ve got some reporters here and they don’t believe that someone can pop a lock,” he said to some laughs. “Can I get someone to demonstrate?”
Understandably, there was some hesitation, but a few moments later, an inmate swung the door to his cell wide open using nothing but a small piece of cloth. Lagniappe isn’t describing the steps in detail for safety reasons, but the entire process only took about 17 seconds.
“Lock him up!” Oliver yelled as he high-fived the volunteer.
While it created a moment of levity for the inmates and correctional officers, a group of inmates used the same technique two days earlier to attack another prisoner. In minutes, they were able to exit a cell, compromise a fire escape door and enter what is supposed to be a segregated area.
“They drug another inmate into their wedge and assaulted him severely — it was six on one,” Oliver said. “We think it may have been an attempt to get even with someone for testifying, but that investigation is still underway.”
It may surprise some, but inmates “popping locks” on cell doors has been an ongoing problem at Metro for many years. The Mobile County Commission has spent more than $1.4 million to address the issue since 2008, and another $500,000 project is underway right now.
While the issue with the locks is a big concern, Oliver says it’s just one of the many challenges his staff faces on a daily basis. In addition to physical problems, the jail is now handling a greater number of inmates with far fewer correctional officers to do the work.
On April 18, there were nearly 1,560 inmates in Metro, which was originally designed to house less than 1,100. As a pre-trial detention center, the number of detainees can fluctuate, but even when it’s lower, five or six inmates can sometimes be forced to share a cell built for two.
According to Oliver, that’s because some cells have to be used for segregating individual inmates like the mentally ill, suicidal, dangerous or those who are in danger. On average, Oliver said more than 200 inmates receive medication for some type of mental illness.
The county has spent more than $7 million on renovations and upgrades to Metro over the past decade, but despite that, Oliver says Metro Jail is in “crisis mode.” He’s not the only one with concerns, either, as the facility remains under investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
“We’ve got mechanical and infrastructure issues here that we can’t throw money at fast enough. They should have been fixed yesterday,” Oliver said. “We’re overpopulated, we’re severely understaffed and we’re dealing with a much more violent inmate than we were 20 years ago.”
Recently, much attention has been on Alabama’s state correctional facilities, which the DOJ deemed to be “unconstitutionally unsafe” for prisoners earlier this month. For more than a decade, though, Metro Jail has quietly been under similar scrutiny from the DOJ.
A federal investigation was launched into the conditions at Metro in 2003 following reports of inmates dying from inadequate medical care at the facility. Initial correspondence with the DOJ at the time noted three inmate deaths that arose from similar circumstances.
That investigation has gone through several changes in focus since, and local and federal officials agree many of the DOJ’s concerns have been addressed. However, the investigation remains active and inspectors were on the premises at Metro as recently as March.
The DOJ presented county officials with the results of its initial investigation in 2009, saying it had reason to believe Metro was violating the constitutional rights of inmates due to “inadequate medical and mental health care, inappropriate use of restraints, excessive force, failure to protect prisoners from harm and unsafe living conditions.”
Since then, the county has continued to engage in a “voluntary remediation process designed to resolve [the] matter without litigation.” Several deficiencies have been found during that process as well. For instance, in 2011, the DOJ noted approximately a third of the male inmates at Metro and more than half of female inmates did not have a designated bunk to sleep in.
While the past few years have seen a somewhat cooperative effort, the investigation has not always been so cordial. From 2003 to 2006, the DOJ toured Metro three times and issued subsequent reports, but things changed after Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran took office.
“It was while negotiating mutually agreeable terms and conditions of our [fourth] tour that the county and the sheriff took the extraordinary and unexpected step of ceasing all communication with the Department of Justice regarding this investigation,” a 2016 DOJ report reads.
Speaking with Lagniappe, Cochran said officials in Mobile County stopped communicating with the DOJ over several disagreements and a list of complaints that kept growing — often sporadically.
“At first it was all about medical, then it was about our suicide watch,” Cochran said. “I think we may have gone a couple of years without hearing anything from them and then we all of a sudden get a report saying there’s a great emergency and immediate action needs to be taken. I’m not begging them to sue us, but at some point it begs the question: When does it ever end?”
Oliver also expressed some frustration with the process, and claimed some of the DOJ’s recommendations have actually caused problems at Metro. According to him, the staff began allowing prisoners to have more time in common areas at the DOJ’s recommendation only to have inspectors criticize an uptick in fights when they returned.
Despite the disagreements, many of the concerns DOJ has documented over the past decade and a half have been addressed. That’s partially due to an ongoing slate of projects that grew out of recommendations from the National Institute for Jail Operations (NIJO).
The county hired NIJO in 2015 to review the jail and “identify any areas of concern,” according to Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson. An architecture firm was then hired to draw plans for additions to the jail to address those issues highlighted in the report.
By 2018, DOJ noted “substantial improvements in medical care” at Metro Jail, and the county put $1.9 million into an upgraded camera system last year.
DOJ still has concerns about Metro’s mental health services, but its most recent report acknowledged improvements in that area.
One of the DOJ’s most significant remaining concerns is with the way prisoners at Metro are segregated into separate housing units. For years, the county has classified inmates based on their individual charges, but DOJ has noted “that cannot provide sufficient assurance that more dangerous prisoners are being separated from less dangerous prisoners.”
After nearly a decade of urging, the county recently contracted NIJO to develop a more robust classification system based on “criminal history, physical characteristics, age and other factors indicating potential vulnerability or aggression.”
That said, Cochran said he doesn’t yet know if Metro Jail with have the physical space to enforce or abide by whatever suggestions NIJO makes. He said that’s one of the things delaying development of a new classification system. There just aren’t enough cells.
“There are a lot of differences of opinion with the DOJ. Some things we were willing to change and some things we disagreed with,” Cochran said. “We think we’re doing the best we can. I’m sure we could do better if we had better funding or facilities, but I don’t think we’re violating anybody’s constitutional rights.”
However, some recommendations never implemented became a central part of a civil lawsuit that resulted in a substantial settlement with a former inamte’s family. Those recommendations included filming planned uses of force and mandating medical follow-ups.
Former inmate Brandon Jefferies’ neck was broken in an altercation with correctional officers in 2015 and he wasn’t taken to the hospital for hours. Three years earlier, the DOJ had recommended taping use-of-force incidents, but attorneys for the jail flatly rejected the suggestion.
“A video monitoring program may be what you refer to as a ‘best practice,’ but requiring such a program is beyond the requirements of any constitutional standard and not warranted by past history or practices at Metro Jail,” attorney Jim Rossler wrote in 2012.
One of the reasons the county settled was because the incident wasn’t recorded and couldn’t be adequately defended. Jefferies’ family settled with the county for $800,000 in 2018.
Understaffed and overcrowded
There were 17,148 individuals booked into Metro in 2017, and that number rose slightly to 18,326 last year. The average stay is about 14 days, but Oliver said some inmates have been there much longer — many of whom were denied bond and have seen their trials delayed.
The current state of the court system, which has been reeling from its own state funding cuts, has not helped move the process along and get those inmates out of Metro, either.
One of the compounding issues at the jail is the difficulty the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office has had maintaining a full staff of correctional officers. According to Oliver, the jail is currently understaffed by 43 corrections officers, about 27 percent of the total security staff.
The county has approved cost-of-living raises and hazardous-duty incentives recently, and while Oliver said those have helped, he’s still losing officers to other jobs on “a weekly basis.”
“You just can’t keep saying, ‘damn the mule, load the wagon,’ but that’s what’s been happening,” Oliver said. “And it’s really no one’s fault, other than it’s a good economy and people are able to find ways to make a good living other than working in this hostile environment.”
The environment can truly be hostile sometimes. Oliver had to stop his interview with Lagniappe on April 18 twice after an unruly inmate set two small fires in the jail. They were quickly extinguished and the inmate is now facing a pair of arson charges.
Oliver said there seems to have been an uptick in assaults at Metro over the past year, too. There were 24 reported assaults at Metro in 2018. Those include 12 serious inmate-on-inmate incidents and 12 assaults on correctional officers.
According to Oliver, there were also 24 attempted suicides, 53 significant fights involving three or more inmates and nearly 600 other disturbances. Officers had to use force against an inmate — meaning they deployed a taser, pepper spray or baton — 322 times in 2018.
Corrections officer Parker Marino says he’s been assaulted on the job before, though he hasn’t been seriously injured. He added that most prisoners are not violent towards officers, and the ones who are typically suffer from mental illness or are facing serious prison time.
Mobile County Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver explains the challenges they are working to overcome.
“These guys know they outnumber us, and we know they outnumber us, but that’s why training is so important in this type of environment. Sometimes you have to pick and choose your battles and use communication to de-escalate,” he said. “They also know if they hit us, they’re going to face additional charges, so they have to weigh their options.”
According to the Mobile County Personnel Board, the base pay for correctional officers at Metro ranges from $34,054 to $54,441, but because of the staffing shortages, some officers are able to make more than that by picking up overtime. Marino said that has a big impact for some.
“There are people in this jail who are making good money, but they’re working their butts off to get it,” Marino said. “We’re doing the best we can with what we have.”
The amount of overtime officers work is usually up to them, but some might have two scheduled off days one week and pick up an additional 12-hour shift on one of those days. Though, Marino did say supervisors will limit how much overtime an officer works to avoid fatigue on the job.
Infrastructure improvements, future needs
While there are many infrastructure problems at Metro, the County Commission has put a lot into the facility in recent years. Facilities Manager Tyler Martin said since 2005, the county has replaced air conditioning units, upgraded the kitchen and created an isolated suicide wedge.
Engineers are also currently awaiting bids for upgrading the jail’s outdated plumbing system and is putting even more money into addressing the detention locks inmates are able to open.
According to Martin, a significant suite of capital improvement projects could be underway soon using a $15 million allocation the county set aside to address “deficiencies” outlined in the 2015 NIJO report. Those projects include expanding the medical wing, creating a segregated area for mentally ill inmates and adding a new, larger sally port and docket room.
By that point, the county will have invested more than $22.7 million into its jail since 2008.
Commission President Connie Hudson said those upgrades and others in the past “increase safety and security for both inmates and staff,” and Commissioner Jerry Carl said the county always has and always will “make sure the jail runs in a safe and efficient manner.”
“The demographics of the jail population are changing,” Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said. “Inmates are older and sicker, which renders them more vulnerable. This investment enables us to respond to those needs in a constitutionally appropriate manner.”
Those local appropriations are being made as Alabama considers investing millions in its prison system to build new facilities and hire correctional officers. Like the county’s recent jail upgrades, that proposed plan was spurred by federal action, and Cochran said that is typical.
“There’s not a big public cry to take better care of prisoners who have committed crimes,” he said. “Many times — if not the majority of times — that prisons and county jails have been updated, it has been at the direction of some kind of court action.”
Cochran said he appreciates what the county has invested to address Metro’s ongoing issues with staffing, limited space and aging facilities. While it’s an expensive problem to fix, he said doing nothing would result in additional civil lawsuits and federal intervention.
He described it as a “pay now or pay later” situation.
“I think their intentions are good. They’re increasing allocations and trying to address some of these problems, but I don’t think they quite comprehend how serious it is for the employees, the prisoners and the county itself,” Cochran added. “Maybe that’s my fault for not sending out the hue and cry. We’ve got good employees who work with inmates and have kept this from becoming a crisis, but we’ve still got longstanding problems.”
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