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Doors open to new jail

POSTED: March 24, 2014 7:16 p.m.
Photo by Pat Donahue/

Chief Deputy Richard Bush shows off the control room that allows jail personnel to watch over two separate cell blocks at the same time. Inmates are expected to move into the new jail later this week.

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Starting Tuesday, if you want to visit the Effingham County Jail, the sheriff’s office will ask whom you’re there to see.

Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie and the Effingham County commissioners sliced the ceremonial ribbon Sunday afternoon to open the new jail, which will be home to the county’s inmate population starting later this week. In the sheriff’s point of view, it’s not a moment too soon.

“We’re extremely anxious to get in here and have a safe environment for the community as well as the employees and the inmates,” McDuffie said. “The process has not been easy and I have learned that patience is a virtue and a vital part of construction. But the fruits of our labor are now evident and visible.  This facility meets our needs.”

The current jail was built 21 years ago, the result of a federal judge’s order. The hasty construction, McDuffie acknowledged, led to a host of problems.

The jail was plagued with a leaky roof and leaky windows, leading to damage of the building’s structural integrity — along with giving inmates more chances to slip away.

“The existing facility has continued to fall apart,” county commission Chairman Wendall Kessler said.

Air conditioners and boilers have failed repeatedly, the chairman added, leading to more costs with operating the jail.

The new jail will have video visitation for inmates and family members, along with isolation and medical treatment cells. It also will enable jail staff to segregate properly inmates, so that offenders accused of violent crimes aren’t in the same cell blocks with those who have committed less serious transgressions of the law.

“It is possible that sentenced detainees may never leave their cell block until they are released or transferred,” Kessler said.

The jail was a tier 1 project through the special purpose local option sales tax. The 56,209 square foot jail, which also re-used the adjoining Effingham Prison laundry and kitchen, cost $14.5 million to build. Rives E. Worrell was awarded the contract, and the design-build team consisted of Rives E. Worrell, Rosser International, Hussey, Gay, Bell and DeYoung, Chatham Engineering and Camacho.

Both McDuffie and Kessler thanked the voters for approving the last SPLOST, which included the jail project on its to-do list.

Work on the jail itself began 13 months ago. It is the first phase in rebuilding the jail and sheriff’s administrative complex, and the deputies and ECSO staff will be leaving for temporary digs at the county annex later this week.

“I can remember speaking then about how the existing jail was facing inmate overcrowding, water intrusion, construction issues and inmate classification problems,” Kessler said. “Those things posed a security risk to the inhabitants, the employees and to our community as a whole.”

The old jail was built to house 104 inmates. It has held as many as 176. The average number of inmates in the jail was 145.

When the county couldn’t make room for its own inmates, it had agreements with other counties, such as Screven and Liberty, to take in its excess jail population.

“We were spending a little over $208,000 a year,” McDuffie said. “That’s what we budgeted. Sometimes we’d go over that.”

Once into the new jail, there will be room for 204 inmates, with separate quarters for male and female inmates, and the adjoining Effingham County Prison allows for a total of 332 inmates to be housed. Also, the new jail can be expanded — something that couldn’t be done within the confines of the soon-to-be abandoned facility.

There also will be 92 cameras in the facility to allow the staff to keep an eye on the inmates and limit the contact between guards and their charges.

In putting together what they wanted in the new jail, McDuffie and others visited jails across the state.

“Twenty one years ago next month, we opened the current jail,” he said. “The jail we are in front of, we had the opportunity to look and prepare and plan.”

McDuffie added they wanted the new building to be aestethically pleasing, so that people driving by wouldn’t think of a jail as one of the first things they saw in Effingham. They also sought sustainability, and they added measures to make the building energy-efficient.

The next step is the demolition and reconstruction of the administrative offices, including what McDuffie referred to as “the aquarium window.” The offices too have been plagued by leaks in the windows and walls.

“It’s getting in bad shape,” he said. “The roof has leaked the entire time anybody’s been it for 21 years. The concrete is dilapidated and is falling apart on us.”

There will be visitation at the jail Thursday and Friday as inmates are moved from the old facility into the new building. The sheriff’s administrative offices will be closed March 25-27 and they could be displaced for eight to nine months.

“We’re just finishing phase 1,” McDuffie said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

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