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Bed Soars: At Flagler County Jail, a Daily “Shell Game” Balancing Risk With Overcrowding

| April 19, 2012

At the Flagler County jail, the room that used to be the library was converted into a courtroom, where inmates can appear live, before a judge, and vice versal, saving the county the cost of transporting and guarding the inmate at court. The conversion hasn't reduced other consequences of overcrowding, however. (© FlaglerLive)

Here’s where things stood at the Flagler County jail this morning: there were 148 inmates in a facility built for 132. Of those, 128 were men, including two juveniles, and 20 were women. The building went up in the early 1990s, when it held 30 to 40 inmates, and when weeks could go by without a single woman being jailed. The place wasn’t built for women. Nor was it built for boys.

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In the felony cell block, five inmates reclined on cots in a cell made for four. (The cell block was on lockdown for most of the inmates there, who had refused to make their beds and properly clean up by the morning’s inspection. So they couldn’t mill about the common area.) In the women’s cell block, built for 14, there were 18 cots, plus one in a corner on the floor. Women facing felony charges should be kept separate from women facing misdemeanor charges, but the jail doesn’t have that luxury.

Several women played cards at a table near the middle of the rectangular-shaped dorm. Unlike guards for felony and misdemeanor cell blocks, who could operate from within a secure area, separate from immediate contact with inmates, the jail guard on duty for the women shared space with them, the line demarcating inmate space from guard space marked by yellow tape on the floor. Call it one of several design flaws in a jail with several such flaws, reflecting expectations that are either outdated or that have been overwhelmed by numbers.

Lobbying for Expansion

Those problems have led Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming to re-start a serious discussion, halted for several years by the housing crash and diminishing tax revenue, on either expanding the jail or building a new one.

A cell in the felony offender block designed for four, housing five inmates. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

The Flagler County Commission is making a jail expansion the centerpiece of its proposal to voters if the commission succeeds in placing an extension of the existing half-cent sales tax on the ballot come summer or fall. A jail expansion would cost from $10 to $15 million, not including the additional cost of running the larger jail, which could add $3 million in recurring annual costs. Absent that sales tax extension, it would be very difficult for the county expand the jail, and absent new revenue, in addition to that sales tax (which can’t be used to pay for ongoing operations) it would be impossible to pay for the recurring costs.

A jail, of course is not a school or a park or a paved street: it’s not visible to most residents, though it’s usually taken for granted. Most residents don’t know what kind of challenges the sheriff, his jail director and her staff of 48 sworn officers and 10 full-time civilians are contending with at the jail, so it’s up to the commission and the sheriff’s office to convince voters that an expansion is necessary.

Undesirable Bench-Warming

Becky Quintieri, the jail director since 2008—and a civilian member of the jail staff for two decades—took a reporter on a tour this morning to illustrate what the sheriff and Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano had spoken off at a joint meeting of the county’s governments on April 10: overcrowding is not just a matter of stacking additional cots or piling in an extra inmate per cell, or of navigating corridors that have become storage areas.

Becky Quintieri (© FlaglerLive)

Becky Quintieri (© FlaglerLive)

The intake zone—where suspects get their very first look at the inside of the jail, where they’re processed, searched, booked, changed into orange jumpsuits—was expanded just a few years ago, with improved holding cells and greater room for a crucial part of the operation: inmates tend to act out the most when they’re being booked in. But the four holding cells are usually used up by other inmates who must be kept separate from the rest of the population for various reasons. There are no other places to isolate them.

“That means I have no cell to go put that person in down there in the booking area,” when a new inmate first gets to the jail, Quintieri said. “So they’re sitting on a bench. Hopefully they’re cooperative.”

Contrary to some perceptions, it’s not a warehouse for low-grade, non-violent offenders, although the overwhelming majority have yet to be tried or sentenced. Of the 148 inmates in jail this morning, 115 are there on felony charges (including the juveniles), awaiting trial. Just two are sentenced felons. All but five of the remaining inmates (26 of them) are there on misdemeanor charges, awaiting trial or, more likely, the plea bargain or trial diversion program that, for most of them, will keep them out of jail.

Separation Anxiety

An extra bed added on the floor in the women's cell block, where 18 bunks alreasdy exceed the 14-bunk capacity. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

That’s just the raw numbers, which don’t get into more intricate issues. Women have to be kept separate from men. Misdemeanors have to be kept separate from felonies. There are several individuals facing sex offense charges. They have to be kept separate from the rest. Two suspects facing murder charges also have to be kept separate. Both of them are high-profile suspects: William Merrill, who shot and killed his wife and faces a manslaughter charge, and Paul Miller, who faces a second-degree murder charge for shooting his neighbor to death. Inmates punished for breaking jail rules have to be isolated. Inmates detoxing from drugs or alcohol must be kept separate. Inmates who have assaulted deputies or guards must be kept separate.

The list goes on. The daily challenge is figuring out how to make it all work, without mixing inmates in such a way that it would endanger their safety or the staff’s, or go against state standards of incarceration.

“It’s kind of a shell game we play here,” Quintieri says. “That’s what my supervisors do every day is figure out who are the lesser of two evils to move out,” when additional inmates are brought in and not enough are leaving. That’s in addition to the shell game in court, where Flagler County Judge Sharon Atack and Zambrano, public defenders and prosecutors go through their own dance steps to (prosecutorial book-throwing aside) minimize burdens on the jail, where it costs $92 a day, or $33,500 a year, to house an inmate. That’s almost the cost of a first-year teacher in public school.

Coddling Fallacies

Quintieri is familiar with the argument that inmates should not be coddled and their comforts expressly minimized, whether through overcrowding or by setting them up in tents, the way Arizona’s Joe Arpaio, a sheriff who prides himself on retrograde techniques such as tents and humiliation as a punishing tactic, has done. She’s not impressed with the approach, which she says would cost just as much in supervision and possibly more in litigation: overcrowding causes fights. Fights are costly on many levels, including overtime for deputies who must take the injured to hospitals, medical bills the system must bear, the always present risk of inmate litigation, which runs up its own bills quickly, and the possibility of additional charges on the inmates who fought, which would only add to their time in jail—at $92 a day to taxpayers.

Not much coddling here. Felony jail inmates on lock-down, because they didn't tidy up their cells before this morning's inspection. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

Exporting inmates is not an option: “Another county isn’t going to take my problem inmates,” Quintieri says, and with a local jail, where most of the inmates are awaiting trial, transporting inmates to and from court is costly, and becomes costlier when a deputy has to log miles and overtime to go to another county for the shuttling. The jail has eliminated its library in order to make room for one efficiency: a pseudo-courtroom, where inmates sit in rows on chairs, as if in a makeshift church, facing a computer screen and a camera, which, when live, is a direct link to the judge at the courthouse. That has saved the cost of in-person arraignments without diminishing the court’s role. But one benefit is the source of another constraint: the room is also the only one that inmates can use to meet with their attorney. When the makeshift court is in session, meetings are difficult. (The library is gone, but inmates still get paperbacks through donations to the jail. Hardbacks are not accepted because the cardboard binding can be turned into a weapon.)

What Other States Are Doing

On the other hands, there hasn’t been serious issues at the jail for several years, other than routine problems that would happen in any jail regardless of its size or amenities (fights between inmates, inmates assaulting guards). Fleming takes pride in the way his jail has been run on Quintieri’s watch, with Capt. Sam Ferris supervising the uniformed officers. But the point Zambrano and Fleming made to local government officials was that the jail’s accommodations can only go so far as the population of the county begins to creep upward again, and incarceration rates—while low for Flagler—add pressure to jail more people.

The booking area. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

It’s not that the lock-‘em-up mentality isn’t changing. Several states, and ironically all of them led by Republicans who once championed harsh sentencing laws, are softening their laws to reduce the number of people going to jail and prison. Oklahoma, for example, last year passed a law that lets non-violent offenders doing five years or less get out after 90 days, spending the rest of their sentence under GPS tracking. In Texas, non-violent drug or property crime offenders have seen their probation reduced to five years, from 10. In Alabama, since 2011, felons who violate probation—a common problem in Florida—serve a maximum of 90 days in prison. In Louisiana, since last year, first-time non-violent criminals can go on parole after serving a quarter of their sentence, down from a third.

Ohio, South Carolina and Mississippi have all adopted softer sentencing laws since 2008. Florida is not there yet, and there has yet to be a movement, whether led by local governments or by state legislators, to reform laws that would relieve the pressure on prisons and jails. So it’s up to judges and local jail administrators to deal with the resulting consequences—the “shell game” Quintieri described within the jail, and the hat-passing to taxpayers that the sheriff and the county commission are enacting now.

Intake fashion. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

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22 Responses for “Bed Soars: At Flagler County Jail, a Daily “Shell Game” Balancing Risk With Overcrowding”

  1. NortonSmitty says:

    Very few citizens of this country understand just how the local level jails perform their designated function in feeding the maw of the very profitable Prison Industrial Complex.

    If I get the time, I will give you this story and show you one indisputable fact: We build jail cells essentially to protect not only our citizens, but our property values. It is a fact that the more jail cells you build, the HIGHER your crime rate will be, and ergo the lower your property values. Don ‘t believe me? In 2000, Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale) had the third highest crime rate in the country. Miami/Dade county wasn’t even in the top 50. Anybody with an ounce of sense will tell you that Miami is way more dangerous than Ft. Lauderdale. Why the discrepancy? Ft. Lauderdale built thousand of jail cells. With twice the population, Dade County has way less than half the cells to hold people awaiting trial.
    In order to get the Feds to pay for the shiny new jails, you have to keep them full. So in Broward County you get taken in and booked for spitting on the sidewalk. Dade you pretty much have to commit murder to get arrested.

    We need to insure that we balance our needs to our particular situation in order to both balance our budget and protect our civil liberties. Hope I get a break from work to expand on this, as it is one of my pet peeves about our rapidly disappearing rights and freedoms.

  2. Wondering says:

    When did the FCSO Jail start accepting donations of books for inmates? Is this a policy of the new jail director? If so, that’s at least a good thing, because not that long ago the FC Jail would not accept donations of brand new books, mailed from the book companies. It was said that books were very scarce, few and far between in that jail.

  3. Col Rand says:

    What is needed are not more jails but drug addictions counseling buildings that can house a patient for 90 days. It should have armed security but not cells. If any patient decided they did not want to finish the program, then back to jail for them. It would ease the crowding of the jail and at the same time “clean up” a lot of people with addictions. This would lead to a more productive society. Until we face the “REAL” problem, we will never gain anything from jail incarceration.

  4. B. Claire says:

    “The Flagler County Commission is making a jail expansion the centerpiece of its proposal to voters if the commission succeeds in placing an extension of the existing half-cent sales tax on the ballot come summer or fall.”

    Cue the T-Party: Don’t need no stinkin’ taxes for adequate jails. [or teachers, or firefighters, or police etc. etc.]

  5. Palmcoastconcernedcitizen says:

    How about prisoners are put in tents like they do in Arizona. The climate here is perfect for it. And they can eat bologna sandwiches. They are the ones that broke the rules of society. Lets start treating them as such.

    • NortonSmitty says:

      Not one of them has been convicted of breaking the rules of society, they are all waiting for their day in court. The very first demonstration of American Exeptionalism was that we codified that for the first time in the history of mankind that the powers that ruled over us citizens must treat us all as if we were Innocent, until a court of our peers determined otherwise.

      Any society in History that failed to meet these standards was condemned by history to be Barbarian, Communist, Fascist or Republican. God damn all of them to Hell.

    • Nancy N. says:

      Well technically at the jail that’s not necessarily true. The jail houses primarily people who are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime. Some never will be.

  6. Sherry Epley says:

    Well said Col Rand! You are right on! Mandatory treatment of drug addiction, instead of just filling our jail and prison cells to punish the addicted and already tortured souls, makes all the sense in the world!

  7. Gia says:

    Counseling is a wast of time & taxpayers money. It did not worked before & it’s not working now either. Jails have too much luxury,

    • Nancy N. says:

      And you came by this brilliant opinion about the lack of effectiveness of drug treatment through what expertise again, since every major expert in the field of corrections on reducing recidivism disagrees with you?

      And if you are putting the word “luxury” and jails in the same sentence you’ve obviously never been inside one or known someone who has. What luxury were you referring to? The pest infested living conditions? The rampant skin disorders? The starvation diet? The medical care that would warrant a malpractice suit in the outside world?

      Wow, forget life in the real world, sign me up! That sounds fabulous!

    • NortonSmitty says:

      Gia, one night at any Jail in the country I promise would knock that luxury word out of your description of jail life. It would replace it with words like petty, vindictive, medically barbaric, and wasteful. And open your eyes to the number of people in the jail for things so minor, petty and Bureaucratically idiotic it would make both Stalin an Kafka drop their jaws and say VDF? (Slavic for WTF?)

      I still want to write more expanding on this subject, as it is one that is close to my heart. I have a perspective that not many have, mostly from my 15 years in Miami doing my Post-Traumatic Post-Graduate work.

      Watch this space.

  8. B. Claire says:

    Well…KUDOS…Tom Lawrence, the chairman of the Flagler County Tea Party Group…

    “Tea Party’s Tom Lawrence, Back to His Roots, Endorses ½-Cent Sales Tax Before 135 Partiers”

  9. ric says:

    palmcoaster you got it right.. If there are bed bugs in the jail guess who brought them in.. This recent focus on the jail must be an effort to keep it high focused to justify a new one or an expansion of what we have..

  10. mike says:

    RON PAUL SOUNDS LIKE A PERFECT SOLUTION TO THIS PROBLEM

  11. David says:

    I thought the whole prison system was made to rehabilitate and educate the inmates to make them more prepared for society. To take away the library and turn it in to a make shift court room does not provide for this. I agree with Col. Rand that most of these inmates have serious drug addictions and need to be treated. Just to place a person in jail with no means of rehabilitation, education, or programs to enrich and train them is not a solution to the problem in today’s society.

  12. palmcoaster says:

    If the following complaint is found to be true….then maybe the Henderson murders/”suicide” case inside the same Ginn Resort, should be reopened? Maybe a case for the FBI?
    http://www.news-journalonline.com/news/local/flagler/2012/04/21/ex-deputy-files-ethics-complaint-against-flagler-sheriff.html

  13. Anonymous says:

    If more inmates were released from jail, people would complain about why these people weren’t locked away and allowed to continue to roam our streets. It’s a lose/lose situation.

  14. Shark says:

    Imagine how many inmates ther would be if they actually did real police work instead of running radar on Old Kings & Florida Park Drive?

    • Anonymous says:

      I am surprised it took them 10 years to upgrade their “GHOST CAR” that they manage to place along Belle Terre, PC Pkwy, or some other area they can find a place to stick it. Everyone knew that old car was a plant…….due to the older strobe light bar on the roof! Now, they take one of the new cruisers and actually place a dummy in it! Sad thing is though……the DUMMY has more brains than the cops who put it in there!

  15. steve says:

    Legalize pot and watch the crime rate drop. Politicians are morons, Cant add 2and 2 two get four.

  16. Wtf? says:

    First of all this article was a set up. The day this reporter went in to take pictures the jail made the inmates rearrange the cells to make it look like there were people sleeping on the floor. In reality none of those cells were full that day and rarely have been.
    Second I’ve given a lot of ignorant people the slide lately but I can’t bite it on this one.
    Gia…. You are so perfect that you have never made a mistake in your life, or been accused of something you didn’t do. Yes, I know you’re perfect. So is whoever said to put people in tents.
    What’s your problem???
    No I have never been in jail and I don’t plan on it anytime soon. But, I still have humanity and empathy for other human beings. Just because someone has done something stupid like tried to steal dinner for their hungry children, or by some consequence was addicted to drugs and made a bad decision they normally wouldn’t make if sober doesn’t mean they deserve to be treated like dogs. They do get fed a steady diet of bologna, they rarely ever go outside, and theres basically no medical attention (dont know how it costs them so much) It has to be very unpleasant.
    These people are not innocent until proven guilty around here they are presumed guilty until they come up with enough money to otherwise say the opposite. There are people who need help, people who need treatment and there is not anywhere to get that. Im not talking about people sitting back and collecting monthly checks either. Not everyone in jail or prison is an ignoramus or a horribly bad person. God forbid one day you find yourself or a family member in that situation one day. What would your feelings be then? Not so perfect right…

  17. Avi says:

    Interesting comments, all of them.
    First, It’s my understanding, that people who are arrested are not actually guilty until proven so in a court of law. In many instances, some of those arrested will eventually have their charges dropped, or will be found not guilty in court. That leave’s about 60% of the current jail inmate population (on average according to the FBI national incarceration statistics) actually not convicted of anything.
    Making those 60% suffer harsh conditions so that the 40% of those who are convicted can have harsh conditions is vengeful and barbaric by any civilized standard.
    Second, while some people think that housing someone in a container with no interaction or education or stimulus will “show them” and make them “think twice”,… statistically it doesn’t. Few people who are about to commit a crime stop and say, “let me weigh the future situation and living conditions of jail before I do this. According to the National Sheriffs Assc study between 2004-2008, simply incarcerating someone with not interactions, education or rehabilitation actually produced a person more likely to commit another crime, while the same study found that inmates who are provided counseling, rehabilitation and education or job training skills are 73% less likely to re-commit.
    To be fiscally responsible, which costs less? Educating and rehabilitating someone for 6 months to a year or re-incarcerating that person several more times for period up to 10 year or life?
    Using law abiding people’s logic on a criminal is the first flaw in most people’s plan when they say lock him up with no luxuries because “that will show them”.
    Having said all that, I also think those are demonstrate the inability to become productive citizens need to be put away from society so they can not do more harm to the public.
    Lastly, if you were wrongly arrested and accused of a crime, wouldn’t you want to have decent, humane and liveable conditions where you could be safe, get medical help when needed and have resources to properly prepare for your defense? if you can answer yes to that, then why should you get that but not others in jail?

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