Jail becomes central issue in race for sheriff's post
By STEVE MYERS
Eight men vying to become Mobile County's new sheriff have made Metro Jail a main thread of their campaigns -- citing a raft of problems, ranging from unsafe living conditions and bad management to low pay and inadequate training for guards.
"I think it's going to be a major issue," said Gerald Deas, a former deputy who's running as a Republican. "There's so many people that are upset by what has happened in the jail. ... Those people down there are human beings, and they need to be taken care of, even though they are incarcerated."
But the man Deas and other challengers want to replace, two-term Sheriff Jack Tillman, maintains the jail isn't an issue because he's boosting th number of beds and looking for more corrections officers.
"The issue is people's public safety," he said. "Do they feel safe in their homes?"
Campaigns are heating up as the crowded field heads into the final stretch for the June 4 primary lections. Two people, James Mayo and Harry Bachus Jr., are seeking the Democratic nomination. Seven are fighting for the Republican nomination: Kyle Callaghan, Deas, John Graham, Tommy Menton, Murdock Thomas Sr., Tillman and Clint Ulmer.
Runoffs, if needed, will be held June 25.
Most solutions offered by Tillman's opponents center on better training for jail employees and improved management. The sheriff acknowledged that overcrowding and staffing are problems at the 11-year-old facility.
A new minimum security barracks, which will hold up to 325 inmates charged with minor offenses, will relieve much of the overcrowding, Tillman said. Another 200- to 300-bed maximum-security addition is being planned, he said. The barracks is not yet operational, and the maximum-security addition is several years away.
The jail, designed for 816 prisoners, holds too many prisoners -- more than 1,000 on some days. Grand juries have raised questions about cleanliness and maintenance. Corrections officers have complained about low pay, poor working conditions and disease.
In the past three years, two inmates have died in high-profile cases that sparked lawsuits. Louis Horn was beaten to death by inmates who sneaked out of their cells, and James Carpenter, a Mobile-area man being held on misdemeanor charges, died of complications related to a flesh-eating bacteria.
The jail also has had a revolving door in the warden's office.
The position was vacant for about six months after Rick Gaston resigned in mid-2000.
Steve Ellisor kept the job for about 11 months before resigning in December. Tillman recently hired a replacement but fired him after a week because the man falsely claimed he had a college degree.
Several candidates blamed poor management and supervision for problems at the jail.
"Just like here awhile back when Carpenter died in the jail, (Tillman) said that was the warden's responsibility," said Thomas, an ex-deputy and now pastor of a church in the western part of the county. "If you're the sheriff, the buck stops here."
When Tillman responded to questions about jail conditions after Carpenter's death, he blamed the state of the jail on Gaston, who had quit the post a couple of months earlier.
Callaghan, a narcotics investigator on leave from the Sheriff's Department, said one sign of leadership problems is that four wardens have run the jail under Tillman.
Menton, a Mobile police lieutenant, said local police officers complain about how corrections officers perform their jobs, which is a symptom of a leadership vacuum.
"It's lacking someone who will come in there and make people feel better about their jobs," he said. "It starts with the sheriff."
Graham, a former Mobile police lieutenant and the owner of a gym in west Mobile, said the jail needs better financial management. He said he would audit all the books to find out where money is being spent.
He said he would try to change the working culture of the jail by improving communication and using modern management techniques.
Ulmer, a Saraland businessman, said he would install additional surveillance cameras so he could see what was going on inside the jail. That and better supervision, perhaps by bringing deputies into the jail, would change some employees' behavior, he said.
"It would just make people more accountable for their jobs," he said. "People will be watching. They'll have to do their jobs or their lose their jobs."
Despite the criticism, Tillman said management isn't a problem at the jail. He acknowledged, however, that the jail has suffered from instability in the position of warden.
Tillman said the jail has no control over medical conditions of those booked.
"You're going to have people that are going to die on you," Tillman said. "We're not a hospital. We do the best we can with the amount of people we've got."
Several candidates cited poor training for some of the worst incidents at the jail, such as Carpenter's death.
Carpenter's hands were cuffed, and his feet were shackled together, and one of the handcuffs was not "double-locked" to prevent it from tightening, according to a medical examiner's report. A bacteria entered through wounds on his wrists and ankles, leading to his death, according to his autopsy.
That would not have happened if the corrections officers had been adequately trained on how to use the handcuffs and leg irons, Callaghan said.
Corrections officers used to go to an academy similar to the one that deputies attend, but they don't anymore, said Callaghan and Thomas.
"You take a man off the street and put a uniform on him and do on-the-job training; it's kind of bad," Thomas said. "You pick up the bad habits of others."
Candidates suggested sending corrections officers to schools, having instructors come to the jail to train them and using longtime employees to teach new recruits.
But the Sheriff's Department offers that sort of training now, said Capt. Ronnie Phillips, who is currently in charge of the jail. New hires go through a 160-hour in-house training class, followed by a three- or four-week period during which they follow a training officer around the jail, he said.
That training regimen has been in effect for the last six to eight months, Phillips said. Before then, there was a period during which new hires just shadowed the training officers before taking their own assignments, he said.
The department is now considering working with the Southwest Alabama Police Academy to get corrections officers certified in their positions, Phillips said.
The Sheriff's Department used to send new corrections officers to a training school in Selma, said Chief Deputy Mark Barlow, but that became too expensive because of high turnover.
That dilemma shows the connection between training and understaffing, which Tillman said is a problem.
While his opponents claimed that it is not -- or should not be -- hard to find people to hire at the jail, Tillman said it is quite difficult to get qualified candidates from the lists generated by the Mobile County Personnel Board.
Many candidates aren't hired because they have criminal records or they are in poor health, Tillman said.
Tillman said he is facing the same obstacle in finding people to staff the new minimum security barracks. He said his office will have to increase its recruiting efforts, such as go into high schools.
But Mayo, who resigned from his position as Tillman's chief deputy last fall, said some of the understaffing is Tillman's fault. Some positions have remained unfilled to save the department money, Mayo said.
He pointed to a 1990 study that said 283 employees were needed at the jail. The jail once was staffed at that level, he said, but positions have been cut during Tillman's tenure. Meanwhile, overtime costs have soared. Overtime was $1.3 million over budget in the fiscal year that ended in September 2001.
County Commissioner Sam Jones said he recalled that some positions have been cut under Tillman, but he said the jail was never staffed at the level recommended in the 1990 survey.
There are now 241 budgeted positions at the Metro Jail, and 219 were filled as of Thursday, according to the county finance department.
Mayo blamed Carpenter's death on understaffing.
"If your floor officers are checking those cells every 15 minutes, they would have noticed that something was wrong with Mr. Carpenter," Mayo said. "Mr. Carpenter was dead some 10 hours before his body was found."
Because some positions at the jail are budgeted but not filled, candidates said it will not cost any more to fill them. To hire more officers beyond the budgeted total, candidates said they would shuffle existing expenses, use discretionary funds such as the food account, or ask the County Commission for more money.
"It's easy to say we need to hire more people," Tillman said.
Some challengers said they would consider pay raises for jail employees, but Bachus went further, saying no one in law enforcement, including corrections officers, should be paid less than $15 an hour.
Bachus, who is running against Mayo for the Democratic nomination, is a state constable and runs a company that investigates commercial safety issues.
The starting pay for corrections officers is $10.28 an hour, according to the Mobile County Personnel Department.
Bachus said that's still low considering what employees must put up with. "The other problems would be corrected automatically once the pay came up."
Challengers also have decried conditions for inmates and guards.
Deas said general cleanliness and medical care are major concerns. Graham said he has heard of filthy air vents and bugs that bite employees and inmates.
"Not all of them (inmates) are totally hardened criminals," Graham said. "Being fed improperly and being in a place that is below standard is not part of their
punishment. Being incarcerated is their punishment."
Callaghan described a mission about two years ago in which he and other members of the Sheriff's Department SWAT team went into the jail to search for a gun. They cleared out the cells and searched them.
He described coming across a commode that wasn't working and had been disconnected from the pipe. An inmate had continued to use the toilet by defecating and urinating on the trash bag covering the bowl, then covering it with another bag, Callaghan said. He said he grabbed then-warden Rick Gaston's collar and asked him to search the toilet.
"That's inhumane," Callaghan said.
Other candidates criticized maintenance, which actually falls under the County Commission, not the Sheriff's Department.
County officials have said they respond to maintenance requests in the jail on a daily basis.
Jail employees need to continue to report maintenance problems if they aren't fixed, Callaghan said. In the case of the disconnected toilet, he said, the inmate should have been moved.
Mayo said the department needs to spend money on safety equipment for employees, such as body armor to protect them from knives and respirators to use in case of fire.
The jail also needs to offer more educational and work release programs, Mayo said.
Several candidates said they or their top staff would eat in the jail to make sure the food was acceptable.
Tillman defended the food, saying prisoners are often malnourished when they come into the jail, and the food is better than what they eat outside.
The sheriff is paid $1.75 per prisoner per day for inmates' food. According to a Register analysis of Sheriff's Department documents, about $1.45 of that is spent on food, and the rest has been saved or spent on other departmental expenses.
"You think they're fed good on the street?" Tillman asked. "We do the best we can on $1.75 a day."