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Berkeley County jail overcrowding a growing problem as area's population booms

Berkeley County Hill-Finklea Detention Center (File, WCIV)

Berkeley County's Hill-Finklea Detention Center is bursting at the seams, with the jail housing 180 more inmates than it's meant to hold even after a 2016 expansion.

There are now 460 inmates inside the jail designed to hold only 291, the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office says. Overcrowding might be an understatement, according to one detention center employee.

“At times, the overcrowding does play a big factor in terms of the inmates versus the officers,” said Lt. Nakeisha Tippins, a detention deputy at the Berkeley County Detention Center.

Lt. Tippins says the 18 corrections officers on each shift are stretched thin.

“Very rarely will there be a 40-hour week,” she said. “We can run up to 130, 140 hours bi-weekly.”

So why, less than two years after an expansion, is the jail almost 190 inmates over capacity?

“You have to look at the growth of Berkeley County,” said Sheriff Duane Lewis.

Lewis says more people moving to the area inevitably leads to more crime.

“We see the amount of people moving here. Homes are being built. We’re just trying to keep up,” Lewis said.

With so many incarcerated sleeping in cots inches off the floor, Sheriff Lewis is worried about safety with too few officers working too many hours.

“We had 12 situations dealing with inmate assault fights, and two assaults on our detention officers,” Lewis said of the last year. “This is not Sunday school class that they’re in.”

The Berkeley County Council recently approved $500,000 to pay for 40 inmates to be housed in the Al Cannon Detention Center in Charleston County. It costs $55 per inmate per day.

“It helps,” said Randy Demory, director of the HIll-Finklea Detention Center. “When you’re as overcrowded as we are, if I can find a way to send five inmates somewhere, I’ll take advantage of it.”

“It actually works out a little cheaper for us to send them to Charleston County than it is for us to house them, feed them, and take care of those issues,” Sheriff Lewis added.

Charleston County has the most beds per 10,000 residents of any jail in the state. Berkeley County isn’t even close, with about a third as many, according to Sheriff Lewis.

“It’s not up to me to decide if we’re going to build a new jail,” Lewis said. “I’m not saying we need to. I’m just saying now’s the time to have the discussion.”

Lieutenant Tippins has some ideas to help with safety and workflow.

“At least two more bodies per shift without overtime. That would definitely be helpful.”

Helpful to keep people safe and secure, both inside the cells and out, Tippins says.

“Officer safety is number one,” said Tippins. “If we can alleviate some of that, a lot of the officers that were part of the turnover rate wouldn't have to worry ‘Golly, am I going home safe today?’”

Sheriff Lewis says he’s considering expanding the jail again. Also on the table is asking the county council for additional funds in the 2018 budget to house even more inmates in the Al Cannon Detention Center in Charleston County.

Berkeley County officials say the jail’s annual budget is $8 million.

The jail doesn’t plan to hire additional corrections officers because the county has given them what they call a generous overtime budget, officials say.

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