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Columbia County Jail – $35,000,000: Replace or Renovate, The Conversation Begins

Posted June 13, 2014  03:40 pm | Part I | Part II

The Public Safety Coordinating Council, some of the brightest minds in the County, will gather the facts, discuss the issues and make a recommendation to the County 5. Second Row left to right: Jail Administrator, Joe Lucas; Public Defender, Blair Payne; County Court Judge, Tom Coleman; Third row (l to r) State Attorney, Jeff Siegmeister; Sheriff Mark Hunter.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last night at 6 o'clock sharp, the Columbia County Public Safety Coordinating Council (PSCC) met to assess the population status of the County Jail. The conversation was between the State Attorney, the Public Defender, the Sheriff, the County Court Judge, and the Jail Administrator. County Commission Chairman Ronald Williams was absent due to family reasons. None of the other County 5 showed up. County Manager Dale Williams facilitated the conversation.

The participants alphabetically by position were: County Court Judge, Tom Coleman; Jail Administrator, Joe Lucas; Public Defender, Blair Payne; State Attorney, Jeff Siegmeister; Sheriff Mark Hunter.

Also attending, but not participating in the conversation were Myriah Brady of Meridian Behavioral Health Care and Shelia Smalls of State Probation.

Click to enlarge

County Manager Williams: "250 [inmates] is a stretch"

County Manager Williams gave an introduction and presented the group with population statistics for the past year. "The numbers are taken from data that have been submitted to Florida," he said.

The County Manager explained there have been major repairs to the jail.

 The construction of the jail was run out of the County Manager’s office by County Manager Williams and County Commissioner Ronald Williams.

FDLE, after a major investigation, found no wrong doing.

County Manager Williams continued, "We are getting to the point where we are getting close to meeting that capacity. We consider the condition and design of the jail. The capacity has diminished more because of supervision abilities. We may be able to say that we can hold 250, but 250 is a stretch."

CM Williams explained, "It’s an old building. What we need to try and do is find out if it still works for us; what we can make do to make it better; or if it is something that has just outlived its useful life."

He added that in 2006 it was estimated that it would cost around $35 million to replace the jail.

County Manager Williams asks the committee for comments as newly appointed Asst. County Man. Ben Scott looks on.

Looking to the committee for comments he said, "We are here to talk about the physical structure of the facility."

Public Defender Blair Payne said he thought the numbers presented by the County looked low.

CM Williams said those were the numbers “reported to the state.”

Sheriff Hunter explained the female section gets overcrowded.

State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister weighed in, "What concerns me the most is a secure place to keep people. The dollars have shifted over the last couple of years for beds on the sentencing end. [The jail now has to be available for felons that have been sentenced for up to two years in jail.]

CM Williams, “Expanding the capacity is going to be an issue for most everybody.”

SA Siegmeister explained that he doesn’t usually ask for a sentence over six months without checking with the Sheriff. “I try to be respectful of the cost.” He explained that for serious felonies, like murder, that is not the case.

Sheriff Hunter said, "Another systemic design failure is the segregation of certain types of prisoners. Those are guidelines that we have to follow.”

Jail Administrator, Joe Lucas

Jail Administrator, Joe Lucas followed up, "Another thing, when you get a juvenile you have to house him completely separate from the adult population. Now, I have one juvenile that is taking a whole section to himself."

Generally, juveniles are housed in Alachua at its juvenile facility. Columbia County, a fiscally constrained county, has the bill paid by the state.

County Manager Williams asked the Sheriff for his comments. “I will give you mine in writing,” he said.

County Court Judge Coleman: "I feel the pressure first"

County Court Judge Tom Coleman said he had concerns about the state putting people in the County Jail. He explained he deals with misdemeanors, “The jail is the only place that I have to sentence people. If it gets tight, I’m the first one that needs to start doing things to clean it out. I feel the pressure first.”

Next Up, The Public Defender: A light moment

In one of the few light moments, Judge Coleman quipped, "Blair’s the public defender – he thinks the jail should be abolished.”

Everybody laughed, but it was clear throughout the conversation that none of the officials took incarceration or the loss of someone’s liberty lightly.

Part II coming tomorrow


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