Macon County's Citizens Academy has learned many aspects of the Macon County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) teams assigned to prevent crimes and keep the streets safe. Last Thursday, Citizens Academy members toured the facilities that house those who are charged with challenging the law in Macon County.
Macon County's first jail was a two cell facility, built in 1824 and housed on Main Street where the current Gem and Mineral Society museum is. The jail burned down in 1849 and was reconstructed the following year in the same location. In 1972, prisoners were moved to a six-bed jail facility located within the newly-built Macon County courthouse.
It wasn't until 1999 that the current Macon County Detention Center was built and expanded to a 75-bed facility. Lt. Steve Stewart with the MCSO oversees all jail operations. The detention center has 19 full-time and 14 part-time staff members.
According to Stewart, there are 100 jails in North Carolina, one per county. The Macon County Detention Center is designed to hold up to 75 prisoners, with the types of inmates spanning from petty thieves to murderers. By state mandate, county jails hold individuals both sentenced and unsentenced. Unsentenced individuals can remain in custody in Macon County with no time limit until they are seen by a judge and officially sentenced, while sentenced individuals can be held up to 180 days.
The detention center had three male dormitories, two that can hold 24 men each, and one that holds up to 12. The one female dormitory is designed to hold up to 12 inmates at one time.
According to Stewart, due to recent legislation changes, Macon County is incurring major expenses in the form of child support cases. New laws mandate that individuals found to be at least $2,000 behind on child support payments can be remanded to the county jail by a judge until the individual is able to make payment. “A judge orders them to be placed in jail until they can make the payments, but it becomes harder for them to make the payments because they are not able to work,” he explained.
The Macon County Detention Center is solely operated by a control room. The control room has 24/7 monitoring of every inch of the facility through various video cameras. Regular jail shifts are manned by a three-person team, split up into four different shifts.
During the shifts, the three-man team is assigned one of three duties: control room, booking, roaming. The officer assigned to the control room is not allowed to leave his post for any reason whatsoever. If the jail were to catch fire, the control room operator would remain at his post. The officer controls every lock, light, and function of the detention facility from his desk.
The booking officer is responsible for the admittance of individuals being booked into the jail. As the only jail in Macon County, the booking officer works with Franklin and Highlands police, and the State Highway Patrol in addition to MCSO to book any individual charged with a crime in the county.
The officer assigned to roam the dormitories, strolls the hallways of the entire facility constantly throughout the day. The roaming officer remains in contact with the inmates to ensure that officers have first hand knowledge about the events taking place in the dormitories.
On a contract basis, the detention center works with a doctor to provide inmates with non-emergency medical treatment. “Regardless if an inmate has insurance, if they are in our jail and need medical treatment, that comes at a cost to the taxpayers,” explained Stewart. “Having the contract with our own doctor has saved the jail a significant amount in medical costs.”
From cancer treatments to the delivering of four babies from women in custody at the detention center, the MCSO staff has seen numerous conditions and medical needs treated at the expense of taxpayers. “The state requires that we give all inmates medical treatment, regardless of the crime they committed or the condition they need treated,” said Stewart. “It is something that is impossible to budget for because we never know who is going to get booked or what medical needs they may have.”
Inmates at the Macon County Detention Center receive three meals a day at a cost of $4.75 per day. Meals are provided through Angel Medical Center. Stewart explained that meal time in the jail has also become more expensive over the years due to state mandates. The state requires that the MCSO have a nutritionist oversee the inmate meals. The meals themselves must meet certain standards such as a calorie requirement and time schedule for when they must be provided.
The detention center employs two different work release programs for inmates. Inmates found to be in good standing are allowed to participate in the work release program that permits inmates to attend their regular jobs between the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Stewart explained that this program is often used for individuals being held on civil contempt orders (child support cases). Inmates who leave the jail to attend their own jobs, regardless of what the job is, must pay a work release fee of $14.75 per day to the detention center.
The other work release program employed by the detention center allows inmates in good standing to participate in work opportunities without pay, but allows them to leave the detention facility. MCSO works with animal control, the landfill, the county garage, garbage detail, and other volunteer opportunities.
Various programs are afforded to the inmates, such as bible study groups, which occur twice a week. Alcohol and Narcotics Anonymous group meetings are also held at the detention facility for inmates.
The booking trend for the detention center various from year to year, often without much explanation. In 2009, MCSO booked 1,161 people on 2,604 different charges; in 2010, 894 people on 1,888 charges; in 2011, 1,043 people on 2,169 charges; in 2012, 1,141 people on 2,511 charges and so far in 2013, 801 people have been booked on 2,033 charges.
In 2012, the average daily jail population was 31 males and six females with an average length of stay per inmate being 14.14 days. So far in 2013, the average population has been 51 males and nine females with an average length of stay of 17.98 days.
To maintain order in the detention center officers use a variety of tools. Stewart teaches his officers to avoid going “hands-on” with inmates whenever possible. “I tell my officers to never go 'hands-on' with the inmates in any situation because that is how injuries happen,” explained Stewart. “Someone is going to end up hurt whether it is the inmate or my officer, and we don't want that.”
When individuals come to the facility and are not cooperating with the booking officers, they are placed in a restraint chair. The individual is handcuffed with his/her hands placed behind the back. Restraint straps are used to restrain the head, chest and legs. Stewart explained that after being placed in the restraint chair for the first time, they generally cooperate and rarely have to be placed in the chair again.
Instead of using direct force with inmates and because no officer is permitted to carry a gun in the detention facility, if inmates become aggressive and confrontational, detention officers use a taser gun to subdue the inmate. The taser gun allows officers to gain control of an uncooperative inmate with a simple five-second shock. “The important thing to realize with a taser gun, after the five-second tase is over, it is over,” said Stewart. “There are no long lasting effects or pains from it.”
To demonstrate how the effects of a taser gun work to Citizens Academy participants, Stewart was tased. After being shot with the taser gun, Stewart lost control of his muscles for seconds, but as soon as it was over, he felt no pain or had no other effects. “If we go 'hands-on' or use things like pepper spray, there are long lasting impacts,” Stewart explained. “But with the taser gun, when its over, that's it, it is done.”
All MCSO officers are required to not only be tased, but to also be pepper sprayed in order to see the effects both avenues would have on potential targets.
Isolation rooms are also used by detention staff in order to gain control of individuals who are uncooperative either at the time of booking or while in custody.
Inmates are allowed visitors once a week and are also allowed to purchase snacks and other items such as socks and candy bars through the detention centers. Items purchased by inmates are distributed weekly through canteens.
Next week's Citizens Academy will be the last of the 10-week series and will cover special projects and crime prevention.