Construction on Effingham County’s new jail is ahead of schedule and inmates could be moved in as soon as the end of June, according to Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie.
“It has blown me away how quick they seem to be progressing with it,” McDuffie said.
One reason for the efficient work is the jail’s walls and cells arrive on site fully-assembled. The tilt-constructed concrete walls will make the new jail much more secure than the current facility next-door.
The solid-concrete walls are about eight inches thick by McDuffie’s estimation, which will keep precipitation out and inmates in. The walls have a resistive strength of 4,000 pounds per square inch, McDuffie said, so “they say you can beat ‘em and beat ‘em and beat ‘em and won’t get through ‘em.”
McDuffie told the story of a former inmate who escaped through a second-floor corner of the jail. The concrete was so badly decayed that the inmate needed only a plastic spoon, and a little persistence, to get free.
“He took that plastic spoon and just chipped that rotted concrete out until he finally chipped a hole big enough that he could go up through, and got out,” McDuffie said. “That’s how rotten this concrete is in this building.”
As added security measures, the jail will not have any external windows other than at the front door, and the recreation yard will be housed within the facility’s high concrete walls.
“When they come out of their cells, they step straight into the rec yard and there’s nothing there but a window that opens back into the day room and the sky straight up,” McDuffie said. “They’re surrounded by building all the way around. If they climb out of it, they’re climbing out to nothing but the building.”
Tilt-wall construction is cost-effective for a large building like the 51,000-square-foot jail, because many repetitive walls can be formed and cast quickly. Also, the contract for the walls was awarded to Jacksonville-based Oldcastle Precast, and Effingham County saved money by using the same molds the company made for the Chatham County Jail renovation.
The current jail was built to last 10 years, but has now been in use for more than 20. It also has outgrown its 130-inmate capacity, consistently housing 165-170 and requiring the county to spend approximately $218,000 a year to house its overflow in other county jails, according to McDuffie.
The new jail will have 204 beds. In addition, a hallway will connect the jail to neighboring Effingham County Prison, giving the jail access to another 128 beds for a total capacity of 332.
“The old saying, they put it in the movie,” McDuffie said, “build it and they’ll come.”
Once inmates are moved to the new jail, extensive renovations to the sheriff’s office will begin. During the estimated nine months of remodeling, the ECSO will be housed in a temporary location, currently slated to be the old Effingham Academy building on Highway 119.
Fixing the leaking, rusted-out sheriff’s office can’t happen soon enough for McDuffie. An $18,000 water heater and a $9,000 air conditioner have been replaced in the past year, he said, and the building leaks so badly that the staff literally used a trough to divert water out to the yard.
“It’s not a leak anymore — it’s a steady stream,” McDuffie said. “It’s just like you turned the valve on and it’s a steady stream of water coming out. There’s no telling how many thousands of dollars have been wasted.”
The new jail will cost approximately $16.2 million, with funding approved through the most recent special local option sales tax vote. Along with its two- and four-man cells, the jail will have its own medical suite, isolation unit and a special-needs unit.
Another feature will be video visitation and video arraignment. That will reduce the time inmates spend out of their cells, since they won’t need to be taken to the judicial complex for proceedings.
McDuffie and Chief Deputy Richard Bush surveyed the construction last week, admiring the upgrade it will be from the current, dilapidated jail and sheriff’s office complex.
“We won’t have to do this again,” McDuffie said.
Bush added a comment that applies not only to the expedient construction, but also the jail itself.
“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “I’m excited about this.”