By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Note: The following article is the second in a two-part series on Escambia County’s first new sheriff since 2003. The first appeared in the January 23 edition.
Two weeks into his first term as Sheriff of Escambia County, Heath Jackson faces several challenges. And he has to face those challenges with budgetary resources that reflect the county’s financial struggles over recent years.
“That’s another stressful part of being sheriff, trying to figure out where the money’s going to come from,” Jackson said during a recent interview with Atmore News. “Escambia County, Alabama is fortunate to have people that support law enforcement. The problem is, the revenue generated in this county just doesn’t amount to what we need to actually get the job done, so we have to stretch every penny we have as far as we can.
“I know some of our vendors are tired of me, because I’ll nickel and dime them to death. But I owe it to the community to make sure, if we buy something, we get it as cheap as it could be gotten. That’s what our plans are, to cut costs and use that money in other areas.”
Most chief among his concerns are how to deal with an aging and overcrowded county jail and how to put a dent in illegal drug activity that thrives within the county’s 951 square miles.
Escambia County Detention Center began receiving inmates in 1991, according to County Administrator Tony Sanks.
“That’s been our main goal,” the sheriff said. “What we wanted to do right out of the gate was attack that county jail. A county jail has enough heartache and stress for 100 people, but at the end of the day, it falls on just a few people.”
Jackson said he has no qualms about his officers putting criminals in jail. But, he added, inmates will be treated humanely while they are behind county bars.
“Anybody who is arrested and put in jail is there for a reason, but they’re still human beings. Most of the individuals in this facility haven’t been convicted of anything, or not of the crime they’re in here for. The jail is not a Holiday Inn, but the inmates need to be safe, healthy and taken care of.
“We’re trying to update some of our facilities — sinks, toilets, things like that — that have been back there for 30 years or more. What we’re trying to do is fix some of those that are showing wear and tear before they cause a bigger problem. If you have to fix one toilet, it’s not bad. If you have to fix 100, it adds up.”
One of the biggest roadblocks to effective and efficient operation of the jail is an inmate population that numbers more than twice the 126 it was meant to hold.
“As of today, we’ve probably got a little over 320 people in jail,” he said. “This facility, with its age and the technology it has, we’ve just outgrown it. As a county, as citizens and as human beings, we deserve better. I challenge anybody that wants to, to come tour our facility. I think that after they leave here, they will be in agreement that something is going to have to change.”
The sheriff said he has already begun the process of preparing a plan to help facilitate the needed change.
“I met with U.S. Marshals about the facility,” he explained. “We house federal inmates that the county receives revenue for. The marshals are in a predicament just like we are; they don’t have bed space to keep inmates while they’re in transit, so they pay us per inmate for the ones that we will keep.
“In return, we make sure we get them to court or have them wherever they need to be. That is very beneficial to us. The number of federal inmates we house adds up over a year, and it’s a good income that helps the county. That money doesn’t come back to the sheriff’s office, it goes to the county’s General Fund.”
He said he would like to see at least some of that money being set aside for construction of a new jail facility.
“We’re going to have to have a new facility eventually,” he pointed out. “We’re way over the life expectancy for this building. When this building was built, it was built to house what we had then. There was no life span plan done to see how long the facility would last, and the growth. If you don’t do a growth comparison, you’re going to be out of room in six months. That’s the problem we have now.
“If I can get the county to meet me in the middle, I think we can come to an agreement with the marshal service that, if we enter into a long-term contract with them, we can allocate a lot of that money toward a new building and, basically, pay the mortgage. There’s a lot more to it than that, but at the end of the day, it wouldn’t be as big a burden on the people of Escambia County.”
He explained that he is also seeking other sources to help. One of his main concerns is the issue of liability that will increase as the detention center continues to age.
“I plan on reaching out to Congressman (Bradley) Byrne and other people in the U.S. government to see what kind of money is available for facilities,” said Jackson. “We don’t want to have to spend money, but there are certain things you just have to do. What it comes down to is whether we’re going to release people back into the free world, or are we going to house them. One good federal lawsuit and we would pay more than we would for a new facility.
“As time goes on, this building will continue to wear. We’re going to have to do better. A county jail is probably one of the most important buildings in a county. What we don’t want to do is write (offenders) a bond on-site and leave them right there at the same house we had to respond to because we don’t have anywhere to put them.”
While Jackson works on his plan to improve the jail situation, he and his officers will be aggressively tackling one of the county’s, and society’s, biggest problems.
“I spent nearly 13 years of my career working organized crime and drug trafficking,” he said. “I never brag on myself; I’m not that kind of person, but I helped put a very large dent in the drug problem when I worked in Atmore and Pensacola, and I’m zero-tolerant when it comes to narcotics. We’re going to hit the ground running, hit it 100-percent.
“There’s a wake-up call coming for Escambia County; I can assure you that it is long overdue. And it doesn’t matter who you are, who you’re connected to, who your family is or who your friends are — if you’re standing on the tracks, the train’s coming.”