Clay County jail is packed; a new one may be necessary

Published on March 23, 2023 at 11:53 am

The Clay County Jail is so full of inmates that some are sleeping on mattresses on floors, while others are in temporary bedding in offices after staff was moved out.

The current inmate population is approaching almost 91% of capacity, making the jail in Green Cove Springs officially overcrowded.

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Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook and her staff have taken a first step by making room for inmates with a renovation of the third floor. Cook also is beginning work to build a new “campus” to house the department’s administration and operations.

The sheriff spoke about the plans during a recent Board of County Commissioners meeting held to discuss all of the growing county’s needs for major capital investments. That includes a hope to be able to use another floor at the current Sheriff’s Office for even more jail space, if her department gets that new home.

“We have got to move forward with a long-term solutions instead of the short term Band-Aids,” Cook told the commission members.

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“If we can repurpose the first floor of our administrative building and get those people out, then consolidate some of those other buildings, the first floor can be repurposed for more jail space,” Cook said. “Then we leave those other buildings, which then can be sold or whatever for the county to potentially get more money in the long term for a jail. Jails are very expensive; very, very expensive. And we are just trying to be good stewards of the progress.”

For now, some Sheriff’s Office staff have already been moved out of part of the current law enforcement center on U.S. 17 to make more room for inmates. The third-floor repurposing will add more jail beds, plus toilet and visitation facilities, Detention Division Administration Chief Chris Sueflohn said.

Set to be done in a year and a half, that would give the department breathing space as plans for a future law enforcement campus are solidified.

“She wants to be able to eventually move everybody down to one consolidated location and probably keep the existing floor plan that we have here in some fashion, but that is a fluid thing,” Sueflohn said. “This is supposed to get us to that point where by then there’s hopefully a solution and they have the ability to actually have that unified public safety building that she is really hoping for.”

A national issue

Nationally, the number of people in jail decreased by about 25% by the summer of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic settled in, according to data compiled by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and reported in November by The Marshall Project. But as issues about the virus faded, the number of those incarcerated increased. And by last summer, jail populations were soaring, with some inmates sleeping on the floor of common areas near toilets, The Marshall Report stated.

Compounding that was corrections officers leaving their jobs as inmate numbers rose. With less jail staff, there are fewer guards or employees to handle court transfers, or even letting them out of their cells, The Marshall Report stated.

The Clay County Jail is allowed to house up to 492 inmates. It currently has about 447 inmates, which is at 90.9% capacity, Sueflohn said.

The expansion work on the third floor, with inmate dormitory space, could give the jail room for up to 612 inmates, Sueflohn said.

With growth increasing in Clay County — and expanded road systems like the First Coast Expressway connecting them to St. Johns County — it is “inevitable” that more people will be arrested and jailed, Sueflohn said. Temporarily transferring some inmates to other county jails that have room means the jail is not yet breaking state or federal Department of Justice rules about overcrowding, he said.

“It is something that a lot of us are facing, and we have been diligent in trying to work with our partnerships in having them hold inmates if we have to,” Sueflohn said. “It is costly to the taxpayer. There’s nothing we can really do about it. If we get to a place where it gets really critical, we start getting really creative and exploring other options and part of that was asking our partners what they could do to help us out. But a lot of them are in the same boats that we are in.”

Clay County’s growth

The commission spent almost 2½ hours at a public meeting March 14 discussing capital improvement projects the county needs for its growing population.

The 10-year proposal included millions of dollars in estimated costs for six public parks, a waste services upgrade, public safety equipment replacement, 10 fire station upgrades and public buildings. It also included proposed funding to begin development on a new 911 call center that could be shared by fire and sheriff’s office dispatchers. That facility would include a training center. A storage warehouse that would be used by multiple county agencies is proposed as well.

More discussion also was held on a proposed Sheriff’s Office facility that would combine its current administrative facilities, possibly in multiple buildings on a campus with room for expansion, officials said. No site has been selected yet and no design done.

“If we are going to move forward with a campus concept and do buildings, then potentially move some Clay County Sheriff’s Office people out of buildings that can be either repurposed or sold to make money for a jail down the road, then yes, I am all in,” Cook said. “We need a jail, and we need to operate more efficiently. And that means consolidating the 20-something buildings we have.”

author image Reporter, WJCT News 89.9 email Dan Scanlan is a veteran journalist with almost 40 years of experience in radio, television, and print reporting. He has worked at various stations in the Northeast and Jacksonville. Prior to joining the WJCT News team, Dan spent 34 years at The Florida Times-Union as a police and current affairs reporter.

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