Gaston County Jail is overcrowded, according to the sheriff, and it has been consistently for several months now.
Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger said the jail has a 526 person operational capacity — a number that leaves 10 percent of the beds open in the jail so they can easily move inmates to different cells so violent criminals aren’t bunking with those who have committed misdemeanors. But consistently over the last three months Cloninger said they have been over that capacity, at times relying on alternative sleeping methods for inmates due to a lack of space.
The number changes daily, but he says they have an average of between 540 and 560 inmates in jail at any given time.
One short-term solution involves “boats” or “canoes” for inmates to sleep in. Rather than putting them in a cell, inmates sleep on these cot-like beds in the common area near the cells.
Christopher Hensley, 22, spent five days in jail for a failure to comply charge in April, he said.
During that time he slept in one of the boats because they didn’t have enough room for him. While the area is under video surveillance and a deputy checks on the inmates every 15 minutes, Hensley said it didn’t feel secure.
“If I wanted to get up and do something I could go do it,” Hensley said.
The prisoners who sleep there have their commissary items out in the open when others are walking through, Hensley said. Inmates were concerned about their things being stolen, but for the officers monitoring the inmates there is an added concern about fights breaking out among the group sleeping on boats.
“It intensifies the day to day operation,” Cloninger said.
This isn’t the first time the jail has been overcrowded. It happens occasionally, but there was another particularly bad overcrowding case in 2008, according to Cloninger.
District Attorney Locke Bell also said he and others are looking into long-term solutions to the overcrowding problem.
“The Sheriff’s Office, the DA and the District Court judges are working on ways to alleviate the problem while keeping the community safe,” Bell said.
Some of this includes looking at the people who are currently in jail for missing a court date. Sometimes a person will miss a court date and end up spending more time in jail for missing that date than they would have if they had pleaded guilty to the original offense, Bell explained.
Additionally, Cloninger and County Manager Earl Mathers have been speaking about adding more cells to the existing jail. Mathers said the problem with a long-term solution like adding more cells or expanding the jail is finding the money to do the construction and then staff whatever new areas are added.
Mathers also said he fears the issue may get worse in coming months. Typically during the summer, arrests increase, while during the spring the number of inmates in the jail starts to taper off. Because it’s already overcrowded, Mathers isn’t sure what summer could bring if numbers continue to increase.
“We’re concerned it’s going to swell and there will be pressure on the facility and staff come summer,” he said.
Cloninger and Bell suspect the higher volume of drug arrests related to the heroin epidemic may be contributing to jail overcrowding.
“We just handle it day-by-day because you don’t know what the numbers are going to be today,” Cloninger said. “We’re doing our job to the best of our abilities.”