August 23, 2012Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes prides himself on the fact that no one has escaped from the county's jails during his tenure as sheriff. However, on Friday night, August 17, by midnight, every single person booked into the new county jail – on crimes ranging from spousal abuse to murder by motor vehicle – had managed to find a way out.
Of course, unlike the future tenants of the newly constructed and soon to be open jail, the suspects incarcerated last Friday night were people who had paid for the privilege to be booked, frisked and dressed as inmates – as well as put behind bars in cells in the new $100 million jail in downtown Greensboro.
To have that experience, the "inmates" had to make a donation to one of two charities supported by the Guilford County Sheriff's Department – the Special Olympics or the Carolina Field of Honor.
After a 6 p.m. dinner that night in the jail's staff cafeteria, many of the more adventurous 70 or so attendees were given sheets of paper that indicated the offense they were charged with, and they then went through the multi-step process of being booked into the jail.
After the participants spoke to a magistrate who set their bail, they were searched and jail officers confiscated their personal belongings. The inmates next went through a medical screening, changed into prison garb and were locked away.
The magistrates and detention officers played it straight for the most part – at times telling people to wipe that smile off their face because this was no laughing matter. There was an officer with a drug-sniffing dog who walked back and forth through the crowd waiting to be processed into the jail. Some of the pretend inmates who mouthed off to real officers in the processing area were pulled out of the general inmate population and locked in holding cells.
There were too many highly recognizable community figures at the event to name them all, but among them were NC State Sen. Don Vaughan, Guilford County Commissioner Kirk Perkins, former Guilford County Board of Education member Anita Sharpe and several area judges.
Jim Rumley, a former candidate for the state House of Representatives was also there, as well as several members of the local press, including News & Record editorial page editor Allen Johnson.
When the charges were handed out, there was much amusement as the public figures saw the crimes they were each charged with. Johnson, for instance, was charged with prostitution, and Perkins was in jail for "failure to support a spouse while living together."
While waiting to have his bail set, Perkins said he had been told that the charges that night were the luck of the draw. However, Perkins added, his wife might agree with the charge he got.
"She always says I don't support her to the extent that she's accustomed to," Perkins said, "but I didn't know that was a crime."
Many of those being put in jail pleaded their innocence to the unforgiving magistrates who set bail.
Barnes said that, all the joviality aside, the night served an important purpose for his detention officers and other jail staff.
He said it wasn't just a chance for the attendees to see first-hand how the booking process in the new jail would work – it was also, Barnes said, a way for his officers to get some practice booking people into the new jail. He said the dress rehearsal would help them discover any glitches in the new setup.
Barnes said the participants got the real jail experience except for a few details. He said, for instance, that the August 17 group was in much better spirits than those usually being locked into the jail, and Barnes added that most of the time the booking area would rarely be as crowded as it was that night.
"Usually, we won't have this many people at one time," Barnes said.
He said there was a lot more booking activity in the new jail on August 17 compared to the old jail in downtown Greensboro that's right next to the new facility.
"We had 44 who participated and were booked in and out – compared to eight that were booked into the old jail and 15 released," Barnes said.
During the charity event, Sheriff's Department Major Debbie Montgomery and Col. Randy Powers made the rounds, monitoring the activity. As they did, they took mental notes on some things that might need changing before the jail starts holding inmates for real.
For instance, Powers remarked that some of the edges on the door panels leading to the cellblocks had sharp edges, and anyone who pushed the door in the wrong place could cut their hands.
Montgomery noticed that her electronic key worked on some doors but not others.
"My fob should work on all of them," Montgomery said.
Also, the metal detector at the entrance of the jail wasn't calibrated correctly, and in some cases the detector beeped repeatedly even when people clearly had no metal objects on them.
Barnes said that, anytime you have a project of this size, there will always be some glitches that need to be worked out.
Montgomery said she was happy with the new $100 million jail, but, she added, not everything turned out as it should have. For instance, it's a brand new facility and already there are some cracks in the floors and some spots are filled in with a noticeably darker concrete than the rest of the floor.
"It looks like chewing gum," Montgomery said of the repaired spots on the floor.
Montgomery said that, despite a few flaws here and there, the new jail was a godsend for the Sheriff's Department and it was much nicer than the old jail – which is going to be renovated in the coming months.
Barnes is fond of saying the new jail has come in on time and under budget, and that's a true statement. However, what Barnes doesn't stress is that one reason the project came in under budget is because the original estimate of $115 million for the new jail and the renovations to the old jail was made before the world's economy collapsed in 2008 – which caused the cost of construction materials and labor to drop precipitously. That saved the county millions on the new jail.
As for being on time, the jail was, but the home stretch has taken much longer than originally anticipated. Last summer, Barnes was predicting the new jail would be open by the end of 2011. Then he said that date would be March of this year, then May. Now, the sheriff says the jail will began taking inmates in a matter of days.
No one tried to escape during their brief August 17 jail stay, but some of the recent delay has been due to the fact that Barnes has requested more work to, among other things, close off some possible avenues of escape for inmates.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who wasn't at the August 17 charity night, said she was shocked to see the sheriff come to the board at an August 9 work session and ask the commissioners for over $700,000 to make changes on a project that was just completed.
Other commissioners said that, with a project of that size, there were always going to be some last minute changes.
The money to make the changes will come from the jail bond funds left over from the $115 million approved by voters in May 2008.
Barnes said some of the additional work on the jail to thwart escape efforts would be completed after the jail begins taking inmates – inmates expected to be of a more dangerous nature than the ones who were locked into the jail cells last Friday night.