On May 12, 2017, I drove up Renaissance Road in Chatham County to visit the Chatham County Detention Center. I had not seen it before.
Its size stunned me. It is 60,000 square feet and 396 feet long. There are three parts to the building: a central cell block, a general-purpose wing and a kitchen wing.
It was built in 2014, and is a medium-grade lockup. However, the security is as tight as a maximum-security prison. The prisoners are under constant observation. They are accompanied by an officer when they leave the cellblock. The center has a long, straight hallway that runs the entire length of the building. All the cells, all the pods, all the rooms and all the hallways are observed from a central office. Yes, all of them!
The cellblock has high ceilings, crowned by huge skylights. This gives it an open, lighter quality.
Sheriff Mike Roberson said: “This gives the inmates a sense of day or night and vastly improves the morale of the prisoners. We designed the facility with a lot of glass which helps the inmates feel secure and limits hiding spaces.”
Visiting a prisoner
If you want to visit a prisoner, you first go into a small foyer. Behind that is a waiting room. It is spartan. Steel bench-seats are attached to the floor.
Next, you would go into a visiting room containing eight cubicles, each containing a stool which faces a TV screen. You would see an image of the prisoner on the screen and he would see you. You would talk through a phone. There is enough room in each cubicle for three visitors.
Prisoners are brought in through the sally port. It is big enough for two buses! There is a small clean-up and shower area in case the prisoner is dirty.
Next, the prisoner is brought into the pre-booking room. There he is fingerprinted, his picture taken, and his criminal record checked.
Next, he is taken to the magistrate office, a secure room inside the building. The prisoner stands outside the office, speaking through a glass window.
Next, he is taken to the booking room where his papers are checked. Then he is placed in his cell. However, most don’t see the cells. Those who will be released soon are kept in the booking room rather than the cellblock. That is one reason that the booking area is large.
Cells and pods
The cells are arranged into six pods: four pods for males, one for females and one for prisoners needing segregation. Each pod contains open common spaces. Each pod has metal furniture attached to the floor. The pods are designed for the prisoner’s well-being and for efficiency.
“We take pride in our efforts to help inmates who are having mental or medical issues,” Roberson said. “Many are in need of detox, medications or emotional help. We have access to our own mental health doctor.”
They have a solitary padded cell for mental cases or self-destructive prisoners.
All cells are checked every 15 minutes.
There is a nurse’s station which contains a separate, locked room for medications – only the nurse can open that room.
There are four interview rooms and one interrogation room, all of which can hold four people.
The most impressive part of the center is the spacious kitchen with gleaming, immaculate stainless steel tables and equipment. It is the pride of the sheriff’s department.
There is a training room that will hold 80 students.
An amazing center
The population of Chatham County is about 75,000. It is amazing that a detention center this big could be created. Even after touring the facility for an hour and 15 minutes, I did not see it all.
“Since at least 2004 Chatham County has had the lowest or second to the lowest incarceration rate of all 100 counties,” Roberson said. “We switch that claim back and forth with Orange County. Our community works hard to only hold those who need to be there.”
“Our average length of stay since 2004 has been between 10 to 14 days!” the sheriff continued. “This is all a result of teamwork with our detention staff, DA, magistrates, judges, attorneys, and our relationship with the public defender’s office. We don’t just hold inmates. We believe in protecting their constitutional rights. Most of them are just like you and me.”
“How in the world did you get this done?” I asked.
“First and foremost, it took teamwork! We visited multiple jails. The main thing we learned was what not to do! We took what we thought was the best of every jail we saw. Our facility is actually a service center, not just a jail. We considered the needs of every person that comes to the facility: the inmate, the office, the family, the attorney, the investigator, the magistrate, the delivery person, the marrying couples and more.”
I have never seen a jail that is any cleaner. The staff works very well together and the esprit de corps is good.
The Chatham Detention Center is the miracle on Renaissance Drive.
Stanley Peele, of Chapel Hill, served as a North Carolina trial judge for 47 years in 62 counties. He previously wrote about the Orange County jail. See that column at http://bit.ly/2sViIeA