CRESTVIEW — The Okaloosa County Jail is bursting at the seams.
Extra sets of bunk beds are crowded into cells meant to house just four people. Correctional officers are outnumbered; two officers are sometimes responsible for almost 250 inmates. Some inmates don’t even have a bed to sleep on, and are forced to sleep on “boats,” raised cots with a thin mattress on top.
It’s a problem, according to Jail Director Stefan Vaughan, that’s been going on for more than a century.
“I would argue that this has been going on systemically since the county originated,” he said.
Indeed, overcrowding at the jail isn’t a new problem, but rather be the norm. The Daily News has been writing about it for at least 20 years, according to the newspaper's archives.
So what does jail overcrowding look like, and why should taxpayers be concerned?
One cell, several inmates
The layout of the Okaloosa County Jail is pretty straightforward. Inmates are divided into five “pods” inside the jail, which collectively are meant to house just 594 people. But most months it’s housing more than 900, according to Vaughan.
Nearly three quarters of those inmates are “pretrial detainees,” or inmates who haven’t been to trial yet and haven’t been proven guilty of anything.
“It’s a high number,” Vaughan said. “It tapers off sometimes, and then goes right back up again.”
Including correctional officers and other staff members, the jail’s daily population regularly exceeds 1,000 people — almost twice its capacity.
And with the jail essentially acting as its own “city,” with food and shelter services, the increase in inmates means everything else must increase, too.
“It needs to expand when you have more people,” Vaughan said. “When you have more people, you need more supplies, more food, and the cost of doing business on a day-to-day basis is greater. More water, air, heat. ... In addition to that, when you have more people around, the space for each individual becomes reduced. Those are all things that just fall in line with having more individuals (in the jail.)”
Okaloosa County’s budget for the corrections department for fiscal 2019 is a little more than $14.9 million, almost a million dollars more than it was two years ago. It’s one of the county’s largest expenditures, behind only the Sheriff’s Office and Tourist Development Fund.
Inmates sleeping on floors, in day rooms
On a recent walk through the jail, Maj. Eric Esmond, who’s in charge of jail operations, said the overcrowding presents dangers to the staff.
Some inmates could be seen sleeping on cots outside the cells and in the “day room,” or main living area of the pod, where corrections officers have to walk through several times a night to check on the inmates. Esmond said it’s not unusual for officers to have things thrown at them by inmates sleeping outside the cells.
The officers also fear that there aren’t not enough of them to go around. Lookouts posted in each of the five pods give the correctional officer, or ideally, a team of officers a panoramic view of the entire pod — including all the cells and inmates — and they can close or open cell doors, turn lights on and off and maintain a close watch.
As it stands now, there are only one or two officers at a time patrolling an entire pod, something that could be dangerous. Many of the officers said they desperately want more help, because keeping an eye on that many inmates at once is a challenge, especially when fights break out.
“If we have inmates behaving badly, we don’t have many places we can put them,” Esmond said. “We have to determine who has behaved the worst, and we only have so many cells we use for confinement.”
The inmates themselves don’t appreciate having to sleep in the dayrooms or sleep seven or eight people to a cell. In one pod, an inmate could be seen trying to sleep on a cot close to the wall in the dayroom with a couple of books behind him, while several inmates loudly played cards on a metal table a few feet away.
“The ones living out here in the dayroom, some of them don’t feel very secure,” Esmond said. “You’ve got other people walking over them, and they don’t feel comfortable.”
In some cells, extra bunk beds are permanently screwed to the walls — a symbol that overcrowding has become the norm.
Esmond said the jail recently purchased more boats, which come in at $350 each.
"We’d like to not have individuals in jail at all,” Esmond said. “But unfortunately, that’s not the way society is. But we regularly talk about endeavors going forward that could systemically reduce our inmate population.”