What does aging Orange County jail say about our community’s values?

Stanley Peele
Stanley Peele

On April 21, John Stokes, a former magistrate, and I visited the Orange County jail (now called a detention center.) We were greeted by Capt. John Sellew and Lt. D. Bolton, detention center administrators.

Visitors to the jail first go into the waiting room, which is sometimes crowded. It only has one bathroom for both male and female visitors.

Next, they go the visitation room to talk to prisoners. There are six seats, facing windows. Prisoners sit on the other side of the windows. Communication is done by phone. There is no physical contact with prisoners. The room is small and cramped. When the room is in use, it is bedlam: very difficult to hear.

The booking room is also small and can only serve one prisoner at a time.

The files are in a small narrow closet that is difficult to get in.

The jail is poorly designed. The cell placement is not systematic. The hallways are narrow with several turns. If someone walked by us, we would have to stand next to the wall to allow them to get by.

At one time, many cells had sliding doors. However, the sliding doors do not work, because the machinery is so old that no one sells the parts any more. The lack of sliding doors creates significant problems.

One of the doors was held in place by a pair of handcuffs.

The jail has a padded cell – to protect inmates who are a danger to themselves or others. Sadly, it was installed as part of a cell block, with other cells nearby. That is not appropriate. Also, it cannot be used for females because the cell block is used by males.

So, there it is: standing empty for years.

The laundry room is unbelievably cramped. The jail usually has slightly less than the 129-person “maximum” number of prisoners. There is one washer and one dryer. Period. That is all. To do the job right, there should be three washers and three dryers. It is unbelievably cramped. There is not enough room for the repairmen to fix the machines. When a machine breaks down, it is hard to get repairmen to come and fix it.

The air conditioning is not satisfactory. One area can be stifling hot and another area can be cold. While we were there, a large fan was placed in a hallway because the air conditioning system was broken.

The lighting is good, but the overall effect is depressing and stifling.

The staff has only two toilets, one of which is in the open.

The kitchen was small. We had to squeeze past the workers to get around. They were obviously hard working and knew exactly what they were doing.

The nurse has a small examining room with minimal equipment.

As we were leaving, John Stokes said the jail itself was poor, but the people who worked there were excellent. I echo his statement. All the people we met were friendly, cheerful, calm and worked as a team. It was an honor to meet these fine people who are willing this difficult work.

The Orange County Jail in Hillsborough was originally built in 1925 to house 38 inmates. In 1979, it was reconfigured, resulting in four more beds. Between approximately 1982 and 1994 several modifications were made. In 1991, the jail’s capacity was 94.

In 1995, the construction of a new jail annex was completed which increased the certified capacity of the jail to 129 inmates, which remains true today.

The jail is overcrowded. It does not, nor can it physically comply with existing State Jail Standards. It is poorly designed to enable the proper supervision of the inmates, and its mechanical, electrical, plumbing and security systems are blatantly outdated

Sheriff Charles Blackwood, the county commissioners, court officials and other fine people worked hard and developed a plan to build an improved jail. However, the envisioned location could not be used. They made a valiant effort.

The sheriff made this statement: “Our detention center is an aging facility in desperate need of renovation, repair and replacement. Its design prohibits us from implementing many of the programs we wish to take part in and is not reflective of who we are as a people.”

The last 10 words of his statement are on target and elegantly expressed.

We have a compelling need for a new jail.

Judge Stanley Peele retired from the North Carolina district court in 2013 after 47 years on the bench, serving in 62 counties, mainly Orange and Chatham counties.