About this story
This fall, Forsyth County voters are being asked to approve a six-year extension of the 1-cent sales tax.
The $200 million special purpose local option sales tax, known as SPLOST VII, would fund construction of a new courthouse and expanded detention center in downtown Cumming, among other projects.
Supporters say the measure is not a new tax, rather a continuation from 2013-19 of an existing levy. And as a sales tax, one even visitors would pay when making local purchases, it’s the most fair way to pay for the facilities.
Opponents question the timing and methodology of the proposal. They also wonder about the locations and why the courthouse just can’t be expanded.
Realizing that many readers may not have visited either facility, staff of the Forsyth County News recently toured the existing courthouse and jail.
What follows is a look inside both buildings, with insight from those who work there.
* Pre-election perspective: Inside the courthouse.
Security and crowding are issues for both the inmates housed at the Forsyth County Detention Center and the employees who work there.
Those held at the facility off Veterans Memorial Boulevard are either serving sentences of 12 months or less, or have not yet gone to court on the charges they face. For some, that process can take several years.
The process of attempting to build a new and larger detention center in Forsyth County has taken much longer.
Four times since 2001, and most recently in 2008, voters have rejected in referendums bonds to build a new jail.
This fall, voters are being asked to decide whether the 1-cent sales tax should be extended for six years, from 2013-19, and the first $101 million of collections used to pay to expand the detention facility and build a new courthouse and associated parking deck projects.
“[The detention center] has certainly become overcrowded, as we well know, and by virtue of that it is simply not only a financial drain on the community, it has really become a problem from a public safety standpoint given the fact that the jail is so antiquated,” said Forsyth County Sheriff Ted Paxton.
“It’s very labor intensive and it certainly has deficiencies when it comes to the actual work force in there, what they have to deal with.”
He noted that while the jail has not outlived its usefulness, it was not designed to be used for this long.
He said advances in jail design over the last 30 years, and even in the past decade, would make for a much more efficient operation.
While even opponents of the measure, known as a special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST, acknowledge the need for a new detention facility, they question the timing of the Nov. 8 referendum.
The current sales tax, SPLOST VI, does not expire until July 2013, but language in the ballot would allow the county to bond out money to begin construction on the facilities immediately.
“No one on our side is saying we don’t realize we need a new jail at some point,” said Steve Voshall, founder of the Forsyth County Tea Party, which has come out against the tax extension. “Just not now in a double-dip recession and not on that piece of property.”
‘Do the best we can’
As recently as Wednesday, there were 192 inmates at the local detention center, while another 189 were housed in other counties.
Forsyth County Sheriff’s Capt. John Gomez said the center’s capacity, which includes staff, is 221.
In 2009, beds in the cells were converted to triple bunks in an effort to house more inmates locally. The change increased the capacity by nearly 90.
During a meeting in May, Paxton said the county’s inmate population had exceeded the 2011 projection of 450. From 2001-10, the county spent more than $10 million to house inmates elsewhere.
Paxton estimated that if conditions didn’t change, the county could spend an additional $66 million in the next 10 years.
Gomez said on average, there are 200-210 inmates and employees on site per day.
He said it costs the county $35 a day for each inmate housed at another facility. That amount is the result of an agreement with other agencies, but is subject to change.
“That could double easily,” Gomez said.
One of the first things a visitor notices at the detention center is that several administrative staff members share a desk next to the intake area.
The space is at the end of a narrow hallway, barely wide enough for two people to pass.
But that’s roomy compared to the kitchen office, which appears to have once been a closet or pantry.
Mats and pillows for inmates are stacked on the floor against a wall because there is no room left for storage.
Their personal belongings are packed in a trailer in vacuum-sealed bags until they are released.
“We do the best we can do,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Jonathan Neville, a supervisor at the center.
‘Don’t have any place to put them’
Space is at a premium throughout the detention center.
Two temporary holding cells for male inmates at the front of the facility are each 14 feet by 8 feet. One has a toilet and sink, while the other does not.
Neville said each cell could hold as many as 15 men at a time, provided they’re all standing.
When the rooms get too crowded, which can lead to fights and other security problems, the overflow may result in inmates being held in a multi-purpose room generally used for attorney-client meetings or video conferencing with courts.
The sally port, which looks like a small, one-vehicle garage, is used for bringing people inside. Because only one vehicle will fit in the small area, deputies may find themselves waiting in line to drop off passengers.
Neville said the intake area, where identification and other information is collected, can get crowded with inmates waiting to be taken to a cell and those just arriving.
For example, vans are used to transport as many as 10 inmates to and from the courthouse, several blocks away. If more vans arrive while previous loads are still being processed, the risk of confrontation escalates.
Neville noted that supervisors are equipped with Tasers. They usually don’t have to use them, but just the presence of the stun weapons has helped deter bad behavior.
The detention center’s lone maximum security cell was used years ago to hold those charged with murder.
“Now there are so many charged with murder, and so many that are mentally ill, it’s essentially a mentally ill ward,” Neville said. “We just don’t have any place to put them.”
Goal is to ‘minimize inmate movement’
The detention center was built in 1976 with a capacity of 64 inmates. The county’s population at the time was about 25,000. The facility was expanded to its present size in the 1990s.
In the original part of the structure, female inmates share one toilet in a cell which is usually at its capacity of 36 to 37 women.
Two cells designated for male inmates can hold 20 to 25 men each. Another cell is used to house those charged with sexual offenses.
Inmates deemed eligible to work in the facility, doing jobs such as laundry or helping in the kitchen, also have a separate cell.
The visitation area is in a small room equipped to seat four people on each side with no expectations of privacy.
Neville said inmates have to be walked to and from the room. That’s in contrast to newer facilities that use video visitation, which is more secure because the inmates don’t have to be moved.
In addition, because of the lack of space, attorneys may find themselves meeting with their clients at the end of hallways in an effort to ensure confidentiality.
The addition to the facility, completed about 1997, increased its capacity to 134.
In the newer part of the structure there are two cells that hold about 35 male inmates each and a third room used for video conferencing between inmates and judges. When available, the room is also used for attorney-client meetings.
Neville noted that the medical area is a “glaring deficiency” for security.
Inmates must be walked to and from the room for treatment or to have prescription medications administered to them.
While tooth extractions may be conducted on site, inmates must be taken elsewhere for other types of dental care.
“The ultimate goal is to minimize inmate movement,” he said.
Officials say the ultimate goal of the sales tax referendum is to fund construction of a larger and more secure courthouse and detention center.
While no specifics have been determined, initial projections show the expanded jail would be able to house up to 700 inmates with room to accommodate an additional 500 in the future.
The new courthouse would be built across East Maple Street from the detention center, allowing for more direct and safer access between the two. The buildings would be connected by an elevated walkway or tunnel.
While the jail would be expanded on its current site, only the 1990s era side would be retained. The original part would be replaced.
“It would cost more to keep this facility running than to tear it down,” Gomez said.
According to court documents, every grand jury since 1998 has stressed the need for these facilities.
Should the sales tax referendum fail, it’s likely that trend will continue.