Come Tuesday, the Escambia County Commission has a chance to put its mouth where our money is.
After much public unpleasantness, commissioners will take formal custody of the Escambia County Jail and all the souls therein.
The jail’s nearly 400 employees and its $31 million budget will be the purview of the county’s department of corrections. So will the care, feeding and housing of the inmates in its confines.
There was a lot of public gnashing of teeth and much sending of tersely worded memos throughout the process, which began when Sheriff David Morgan asked commissioners for a super-sized increase in his budget.
The request came in part because of problems cited in a U.S. Department of Justice report about conditions at the jail including a lower-than-desired guard-to-prisoner ratio that led to violent conditions in the jail, as well as the continuation until this February of a policy that segregated inmates into black-only pods at the jail.
It also noted woefully inadequate mental health services provided at the jail.
Rather than give the sheriff a budget increase they said they couldn’t conjure if they were all honors graduates from Hogwarts, commissioners said they would take on the jail for themselves.
Now they have their wish.
Don’t blow it, gentlemen.
There is not much love lost between the commissioners en masse and the sheriff. But this little episode needs to be more than just a political win or loss to be scored like a tally mark.
The jail has serious problems, and no matter who is at the top of the flow chart, the taxpayers of Escambia County will be the ones on the hook for the bill to fix them.
The DOJ report outlines a facility that had more in common with mid-20th century prison practices than anything that ought to be acceptable nowadays, either from a civil liberty or moral perspective.
Over time -- and through more than one administration -- the Escambia Jail was allowed to deteriorate into the state the DOJ found it.
Staffing levels fell because jobs were not filled, leaving those who were on the job in dangerous conditions.
Inmates who needed mental health care went without it, to their own detriment and ultimately to the danger of themselves and those around them.
And black inmates were kept segregated from white inmates in part it seems under the blithely ignorant philosophy that it cut down on gang activity to do it that way.
Who says the Old South is dead?
This is a problem this community’s leaders need to show they can fix. Staffing levels need to be brought to levels that ensure both corrections officers and prisoners are safe.
Training needs to be improved so that corrections officers have the tools they need to manage their duties.
While waiting for the establishment of a specialty court for mental health, medical care at the jail needs to improve with a full complement of licensed professionals in charge of evaluating incoming prisoners and their needs and medications.
The spectre of federal takeover of the jail loomed over many of the discussions about what to do with the facility.
But let’s be honest: The DOJ and Attorney General Eric Holder do not want to run the Escambia County Jail. They have more than enough to do already.
They do want to see us make a good-faith effort to address the problems that we allowed to fester. They want us to clean up after ourselves, as it were.If we do that it would be a big mark in our favor.