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Activist questions legality of increased jail capacity
Request targets sheriff, fire chief
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Forsyth County News

A statewide political activist from Rome has asked judges in two counties to force local and state officials to do what he contends is their job.

George Anderson of the Ethics in Government Group has filed a request for writs of mandamus in Forsyth County Superior Court against Forsyth County Fire Chief Danny Bowman and Sheriff Ted Paxton.

He also has filed the same request in Fulton County Superior Court against Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine.

The issue centers on whether the capacity of the Forsyth County Jail was properly increased under laws pertaining to the state fire code.

According to the requests involving Bowman and Paxton, Anderson maintains that they and Oxendine “have all conspired to disregard state fire laws and occupancy certifications” with respect to the local jail.

The writ request involving Oxendine states it is being sought because of his, Paxton’s and Bowman’s “blatant failure to act and outright refusal to uphold the state of Georgia fire code regulations and fire inspection certificate involving the Forsyth County Jail that is in clear violation of state law by exceeding mandated inmate capacities.”

County Attorney Ken Jarrard, who is representing Bowman and Paxton in the matter, said a hearing has not been scheduled.

“We’ll review the allegations and respond in due course,” he said, declining further comment.

Bowman would not comment on the matter. Attempts to reach Oxendine were unsuccessful.

Paxton questioned why Anderson has targeted the state fire commissioner's inspections of the facility and not jails in other counties.

“I think, given Mr. Anderson’s notoriety throughout the state, that by his filing such frivolous and unsubstantiated charges just continues to perpetuate the fact that Mr. Anderson really is defeating his own purpose,” Paxton said.

The sheriff added that he is confident the allegations will be dismissed.

Anderson said he got involved after visiting the jail and speaking with local residents. It appears the “conspiracy” lies in issues surrounding the jail’s capacity.

“(Oxendine) is not supposed to allow the occupancy rate of the Forsyth County Jail to go from one number to a larger number simply because it’s authorized by politicians,” he said. “If a fire occurred, it’s a real safety issue right now and I’m concerned about it.”

According to the writ requests, the jail’s capacity was at 134 inmate beds. Then, on Jan. 14, "the facility’s occupancy was 260 inmates, almost double the fire certification capacity.”

The documents go on to say that a Jan. 31 fire inspection report “reveals numerous fire code violations within the detention facility” and question the jail’s emergency evacuation procedures.

Paxton said the capacity was increased to 228 beds following a March 31 inspection and evaluation of the jail’s square footage.

He said the inspection revealed no violations.

The facility was able to accommodate the increase by converting bunk beds in the cells to triple bunks. The measure allows the jail to house more inmates locally, thereby cutting costs during the economic downturn.

Paxton has previously said it costs about $45 a day to house an inmate in a facility outside the county, with about 150 still housed elsewhere.

The changes follow November's failed bond vote to build a new detention center. Voters rejected the plan to build a 226,000-square-foot jail with 480 beds through a $75 million bond, which would have been paid back over 30 years.

It was the fourth time in eight years that a proposal to build a new detention center has failed.