Vince Wheeler: Escapes show jail upgrades needed

Apr. 16, 2013 @ 01:06 AM

Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes ruffled some feathers the other week with comments after two inmates escaped from the Guilford County Jail in High Point.
On March 16, Jose Alberto Hernandez and Jose Idel Sid, being held on dozens of child sex crimes charges, escaped from their fourth-floor cell. As of Monday, the pair was still on the loose and the search for them continued, according to the Sheriff’s Office. But my guess is those two guys are long gone from here, probably somewhere far to the south by now.
Talking with the media after the incident, Barnes told of human errors that aided in the escapes but he also explained that the men had used pieces of metal taken from a ceiling vent in their cell and removed a 15-inch by 13-inch Plexiglass window. They then used bed sheets to descend 30 feet to a ledge and then jumped 14 feet to the ground.
But it was Barnes’ comments about the original jail construction that upset some local folks. “This jail was not built by jail builders. The materials were not up to grade,” he told media representatives during a press conference. “If it was up to jail standards, (the window) would have had a bar over it.”
It’s not “Stop the presses!” news that Barnes has said or done something that ruffled a few feathers. That comes with the job. But while I certainly understand concerns about his remarks expressed in a Your View letter on this page April 7, I do think maybe what the sheriff meant hasn’t been fully understood.
Family members of a local architect who was deeply involved with the jail and courthouse construction project in the late 1980s felt that Barnes’ comments reflected negatively on the work of the architect, who has since died. However, I don’t believe what Barnes said was meant to impugn the architect’s reputation. Instead, I think he was making a statement about the incarceration concept under which the High Point jail was built nearly 25 years ago.
As I recall from covering for the Enterprise much of the building project, the philosophy that guided jail construction was that it would be a state-of-the-art facility and more “inmate friendly” — we might say today. Inmates would have more freedom under the open-air incarceration concept in vogue at the time. The new concept also was supposed to save money because fewer jailers could supervise more inmates.
But all this was based on the new jail not housing “harden criminals” and people charged with heinous crimes such as multiple child sex violations — as were the two recent escapees.
So it stands to reason — to me, at least — that Barnes’ comments about jail construction standards back then are not far from the truth. The jail simply wasn’t built to hold inmates who are greater risks for escape. That’s why a couple of years ago we saw benefits in the idea of temporarily closing the jail to save the county operating expenses because that plan also included upgrading and renovating the jail during the year or two that it might be closed.
Although county officials eventually decided not to close the High Point jail temporarily, I’d contend it still needs the upgrading and renovating that Barnes and others thought it needed a couple of years ago. And I’d submit the March 16 escapes as evidence.

vwheeler@hpe.com | 888-3517