Jail overcrowding critical, sheriff says

Jail overcrowding critical, sheriff says

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He will lobby officials in Mecklenburg to put bonds on ballot in fall


The sheriff in North Carolina’s most populous county says that jail overcrowding there has become dangerous and must be resolved.

Sheriff Jim Pendergraph of Mecklenburg County plans to meet with County Manager Harry Jones this week to suggest a short-term solution and to lobby to get a referendum for jail-construction bonds put on this fall’s ballot.

On an average night, about 400 inmates sleep on the floor. The average daily population of the jail is nearly 2,600, about 1,000 more prisoners a day than the jail had in 2000, according to the county.

"I don’t care if they are sleeping on the floor – it’s not about the inmates," Pendergraph said. "But it’s a safety issue when you get 75 to 80 staying in an area designed to hold 56. You can feel the tension in the air. It’s a bad situation."

Pendergraph is paying overtime to have two detention officers, instead of one, monitor each sleeping area of the jail. Still, the number of assaults on his staff has increased, he said.

Last year, voters approved $14 million to add beds for teenage inmates and to build a vocational center for inmates, but neither project will reduce overcrowding, said Julia Rush, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department.

The Mecklenburg jails can hold 2,694 inmates. The overflow is in the men’s sections. Areas set aside for women and sick inmates have unused beds, but the groups can’t be mixed.

Pendergraph attributes the problem mostly to the backed-up court system. While fewer inmates can afford to post bond, they’re having to wait longer for their cases to go to court. The average stay is 16 to 18 days, Pendergraph said. Some inmates have been waiting on a trial for years.

The newest inmates sleep on cots, then get moved when beds open. (more…)