After weeks of back-and-forth discussions, Escambia County officials have agreed to begin correcting what local defense attorneys claim are built ‘unconstitutional’ design flaws. in the new $ 142 million county correctional facility.
The new facility began housing detainees in June and since then both public and private defense lawyers have told the News Journal they are frustrated with the conditions under which they have to meet clients at the new facility.
Lawyers say the new 840 bed Escambia County Correctional Facility was not designed to include enough rooms for private meetings between lawyers and clients, and the few spaces available do not allow for privacy and confidentiality, potentially jeopardizing the integrity of the criminal justice system.
“It appears that the new facility was designed to be a correctional facility and not a remand,” said Bruce miller, the Public Defender of the First Judicial Circuit. “In other words, access to a lawyer and the preservation of constitutional rights of access to courts were an afterthought in design.”
Worksite completed:Construction of new $ 142 million Escambia County jail completed
After repeated requests from the News Journal last week, county spokeswoman Laura Coale said in a written statement that Escambia County Corrections now plans to correct some of the design flaws in the new facility and ” open additional spaces in the old prison where lawyers can meet. with their clients.
“The concerns of public defenders are well taken into account, and the county intends to make improvements to facilitate better access between lawyers and defendants within the prison,” according to the county statement.
The statement says the county plans to soundproof the meeting rooms at the new facility to better ensure attorney-client privilege, allow for the direct exchange of documents between attorneys and their clients, and increase the number. areas of the former prison where lawyers and clients can meet.
Miller and Gene Mitchell, a prominent local defense attorney, led a lobbying effort to convince the county to implement changes to the new facility.
“I spoke with the county attorney at the end of last week, and they acknowledged there were issues,” Miller told the News Journal this week. “I think things have improved. I think we still have to see how it all plays out.”
Mitchell, who raised concerns about the correctional facility earlier this month to the Escambia County Commission, said he was “delighted” to learn of the decision from County officials. address concerns.
“I am really, really encouraged and grateful,” he said.
Coale said Escambia County Director of Corrections Rich Powell expected to receive an estimate of the cost of changes to the correctional facility by the end of the week.
What are the concerns of defense lawyers?
The new prison facility was built to replace the old central reservation and detention center which exploded due to a natural gas leak during the April 2014 floods. The new facility relieves overcrowding in the old prison of Escambia County, which became the county’s main detention center after the destruction of the old center.
Inmates in Escambia County are now housed in both the new correctional facility and the old prison. As of Tuesday morning, 438 inmates had already been transferred to the new establishment while 794 inmates were still housed in the old prison.
Defense attorneys say the problem is that the new facility was designed with just three rooms where they can meet their clients face to face without a glass partition separating them. By way of comparison, the old prison has 12 such rooms.
Defense lawyers argue that they do not have enough space to meet in a timely manner with the hundreds of detainees who all need to speak with lawyers before going to trial. Miller pointed out that the Public Defender’s Office alone represents about 900 inmates every day. He said as soon as inmates started moving to the new correctional facility, he started hearing his deputy public advocates complaining about wait times of over an hour to see a single client.
In addition to the three rooms, there are also six meeting rooms in the new facility that have glass partitions between the client and their lawyer, which defense lawyers say hinders their ability to transmit documents directly to their clients. customers, including those they often need. to attend the signing of their clients and which sometimes require the authentication of a notary.
“They’ve eliminated the ability for us to pass documents to inmates, to our clients,” Miller said. “So we have to call a (correctional officer) to come down, physically grab that piece of paper, and then they disappear with it, take it to the inmate, bring it back and it’s signed. It takes a lot of time, time, and ( the document) has lost the integrity of its authenticity when it disappears. “
While the county has not explicitly stated its intention to increase the number of attorney-client meeting spaces at the new facility, its statement said new spaces will be opened for attorneys and their clients to meet at. inside the old prison.
“The county has now opened up access for lawyers to the Phase 1 and Phase 2 buildings (ie the old prison buildings). This has created four additional face-to-face rooms for lawyers and customers, separated only by plexiglass or a minimum physical barrier, “the statement said.
In addition to video visitation rooms and telephones, the new correctional facility and former prison now have 15 open rooms without partitions and 10 rooms with partitions in which lawyers and their clients can communicate face to face, according to the county. . To resolve the partition issue, the county said it plans to cut off the portholes in those rooms to allow documents to be transmitted.
The county also said it plans to soundproof rooms at the new facility, which the defense attorney Michael griffith said was a major concern.
“So I can hear what the lawyer in the booth next to me is talking to his client about, and he can hear what I’m talking about to my client,” Griffith told the News Journal earlier this month. “So there is absolutely no confidential attorney-client if there is someone else in one of the other rooms next to you.”
Unlike a prison where inmates have already been convicted and sentenced, the majority of inmates at Escambia County Jail await trial, making adequate access to a lawyer vital. If detainees do not have adequate and appropriate access, it could lead to court rulings being overturned because detainees do not receive effective assistance from a lawyer, Mitchell said.
“My personal opinion is that if we are to move forward under the conditions we find ourselves in, we are going to have a lot of ineffective assistance from lawyers, which means that even if your client is convicted, they are going to have to come back. court, ”Griffith said earlier this month before the county released its plan to address concerns.
Powell, the county’s director of corrections, defended the jail’s design in a text message responding to the News Journal’s request for comment, saying the new facility was designed with safety as a top priority.
“All prisons / penal institutions in the county serve both pre-trial and post-trial detention. Some are often overlooked that we frequently house death row or life sentence inmates while being referred for court hearings, ”Powell wrote in the text. “Therefore, we take security measures very seriously for anything we are accused of detaining.”
Colin Warren-Hicks can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8680.