Inmates at Clatsop County Jail typically eat week-old frozen dinners shipped from eastern Washington because there is no kitchen. But when the food service recently encountered problems bringing meals, sheriff’s deputies had to make pizza runs to Papa Murphy’s.
A recent meeting between an inmate and a visitor went awry when another inmate — sitting in the same small room — pounced on him.
More than 60 inmates occupy the jail in Astoria, which was originally designed to hold 29 inmates when built in 1980. From January to late September, an average of six inmates awaiting trial per week were released early due to overcrowding.
The two dozen sheriff’s deputies who work at the jail point to necessary upgrades that would make their jobs easier.
“There’s just a lot of huge constraint issues,” Sheriff Tom Bergin said. “It’s a pain in the butt.”
In another attempt to address overcrowding, the sheriff’s office may — for the third time in the past two decades — seek a bond measure. This time, the jail would be relocated to the site of the former North Coast Youth Correctional Facility in Warrenton, which closed in October due to state budget cuts. Bergin has said he would need a consensus from county commissioners before moving forward with a bond.
Proposals to redesign the former youth facility into a modern adult jail range from $18 million to $28 million. The number of inmates held there would range from 148 to 200 with the potential to expand to 252 in the future.
The other key feature of a potential new jail, which would have a more modern, podular design, would be the ability for deputies to supervise inmates more directly.
When people are arrested and taken to the jail, they check in at a booking room, where they are greeted by two deputies. The roughly 150 square-foot room and a single holding cell can often overwhelm the deputies on weekends or spring break nights.
“It can get cramped up, but we can only do so much for officers’ safety,” Sgt. Aaron Parks said.
The jail’s design does not allow deputies to directly supervise inmates. Before entering a room, they must ask a technician located in a control room to unlock the door.
“We can’t see everybody that’s in custody visually,” Lt. Matt Phillips, the jail’s commander, said.
The technician then checks to see if the other side of the entryway is safe. When the technician isn’t busy doing that, he or she must also scan live footage from 64 different cameras in the building, alerting deputies when an issue arises.
A lot can happen quickly in one area of the jail while the technician is focused on another area, Phillips said.
“Those 10 to 30 seconds makes a difference when looking at the different cameras,” he said. “Some guy could be getting pummeled. With a better designed facility, it would be easier for him to do his job.”
The jail also has blind spots, such as the emergency staircase deputies use to walk inmates to the recreation area on the roof of the building. The staircase has motion detectors but no video cameras. Multiple deputies are required to transfer inmates. A new jail, however, could include automatic doors that would allow inmates to walk out to the recreation areas straight from their cells, Parks said.
Deputies — often saddled with tasks such as paperwork, bookings and taking inmates to court hearings — sometimes are unable to prioritize recreation hours.
“Roof time is one of the things that’s important but not necessary for day-to-day operations,” Parks said.
On the other hand, a new jail would present new challenges when inmates have court dates. While the downtown jail sits across the street from Circuit Court, the proposed site is a 15-minute drive away.
Inmates would continue to appear at arraignment via video. For other hearings, two deputies would likely shuttle inmates to and from court, Phillips said.
Deputies often need to be creative when handling the quirks of a jail built for a different era. In 1980, the jail would hold only one or two women at a time, Bergin said. Women now account for roughly 25 percent of the jail’s population.
Federal law prohibits male and female inmates from being able to hear or see each other from their living quarters. Depending on spacial needs, men and women sometimes occupy rooms next to each other. While thick walls prevent sound from traveling, deputies sometimes place shower curtains over windows to limit sight.
‘Not big enough’
Orion Shay Adamson, a 42-year-old inmate who has stayed in the jail more than 20 times over two decades, said he and others would benefit from features such as a workout facility. A previous gym was closed in 1985 to accommodate a laundry room and an extra dormitory.
Adamson’s most recent arrest came earlier this month for unlawful possession of heroin and methamphetamine. He doesn’t feel cramped on a daily basis in his dormitory that includes others charged with drug-related crimes.
“For the amount of guys we have here it’s adequate, but it’s not big enough for what Mr. Bergin needs,” Adamson said.
While speaking in a dormitory full of inmates Tuesday night, Bergin suggested the new jail could include expanded mental health treatment.
“That would be sweet,” one inmate said.
While recognizing the benefits, Adamson acknowledged one obvious catch.
“Inmates would not like it because they would get longer stays, but the honest citizens of Astoria and Clatsop County would probably benefit from a new jail,” Adamson said.