An inmate at the Curry County Jail was able to pry out a piece of pointed, rusted metal from a the wall in the exercise yard Aug. 17, prompting Sheriff John Bishop to shut down the facility and request emergency funding for repairs from the Curry County Board of Commissioners Wednesday.
The metal, typically called a shank, was between 20 and 26 inches long, he said. A deputy saw the inmate with it and took it from him.
“It had rusted enough, he just pulled it out,” Bishop said. “He might not have done anything with it, but we definitely don’t want a piece of metal floating around the jail. It could have made a nasty wound.”
The board granted the department an emergency expenditure of no more than $25,000 to repair the exercise yard, which could begin as early as tomorrow (Aug. 26) and be finished within five days.
The yard is a rectangular structure open to the sky; its 10-foot-tall walls were originally built of steel with a mesh grate rimming the upper edge. At some point, some of those walls were replaced with “temporary” plywood, Bishop said.
“It’s in horrible shape,” he said. “I’m surprised a windstorm hasn’t blown it down.”
“We’re at the end of the road,” Bishop told commissioners. “We’ve fixed it and fixed it and fixed it as much as we can. We’ve limped along and limped along and limped along. We can’t do it anymore. It’s a safety issue.”
Facilities maintenance director Eric Hanson will line up contractors from the county’s list of preferred vendors. Because of the urgency involved, he is exempt from the competitive bidding process that can take one to two months.
“It’s an ongoing problem,” Hanson said. “We’re at the point where it (the yard) could collapse.”
“The supports are just as rusted, and sooner or later are going to fall on someone,” he said. “We’ve done a great job of doing a lot of it (repair), but this jail is tired.”
By law, Bishop must provide inmates with fresh air and an area in which to exercise.
But the jail’s dilapidated conditions require a deputy to watch inmates while they are in the yard. And one of those inmates is a high flight risk, Bishop noted.
“He’s made it well known that if he sees any daylight at all, he’s gone,” he said. That has forced Bishop to require two deputies to be with that inmate – a requirement that further stresses the department’s already thin ranks.
Bishop told county commissioners that inmates have also been leaving notes to one another in little cracks they make in the walls of the exercise yard. An example, he said, is that some of the inmates recently arrested in a burglary ring have been trying to communicate with each other, telling one another what they might have said to law enforcement, or advising others what to say if interrogated.
And because of the placement of the exercise yard, if inmates inside start yelling, it disrupts court proceedings and office operations nearby.
The jail lends itself to such situations, as it was built in 1962 and is open 24 hours a day, year-round, Bishop said.
It’s not the only problem sheriff’s officials have faced with the jail over recent years, either.
When Bishop came on as sheriff in 2008, he noted in a grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the building “has major design and structural issues that need to be immediately addressed.”
The most urgent, and for which the sheriff’s office received a $50,000 grant to repair, was corroded wastewater pipes that were not only leaking, but eroding the surrounding concrete. Additionally, the leaks created an unhealthy situation in which mold and mildew formed on the ceiling.
Jail officials were using catch basins and buckets to catch the water, and four jail cells could not be used because of their condition related to the leaking pipes. Every toilet in the facility leaked, and pipes – ensconced in concrete – were breaking on a daily basis.
Now, Bishop noted, there is still no heating, cooling, air exchange or sprinkler system – all code violations.
“We can only do what we can do,” Bishop said.
A recent concern also notes that the jail – and most of the county buildings in Gold Beach – is located in a tsunami inundation zone.
“This is the latest episode of an emergency repair in an aging facility,” said Commissioner David Itzen. “I’d imagine there will be more as time goes by.”
Commissioners realize the conditions under which the sheriff is operating – and Bishop realizes the financial constraints under which they are working.
“I warned them in ‘08,” Bishop said of the deteriorating conditions there. “In ‘09, I told them. Last year I wrote them another letter. We can’t fix it; it’s got to be torn down and replaced. At some point, what has to be decided is when to stop putting money into this facility and build another. But now is not the time to ask for a new one.”