The fact that Chief Superior Court Judge Carl Brown is actually asking the Augusta Commission to consider saving the former Joint Law Enforcement Center at 401 Walton Way shows exactly how desperate the local judges are for additional courtrooms and office space.
Let’s face it: That facility is a complete and total wreck.
So, how in the world did Augusta already get to the point that it is contemplating reopening the Joint Law Enforcement Center?
Well, the new Augusta-Richmond County Judicial Center, which cost taxpayers a whopping $67 million and just opened back in 2011, is already running out of room because it offers smaller courtrooms and not enough adequate storage space.
Specifically, Brown told commissioners they should consider reopening the more than 30-year-old Joint Law Enforcement Center on Walton Way to meet the needs of “Juvenile Court, training, additional courtrooms, office space, storage, mediation and future growth.”
But the Joint Law Enforcement Center has remained completely vacant since 2013 after the city received more than a decade of complaints about leaks, mold, mildew and other dangerous health concerns inside the building.
So why in the world should Augusta consider throwing more money at an aging facility that could be potentially hazardous to the public?
Well, Brown is saying the courts can’t wait for the county to construct a new, adequate facility.
The judges need more space… like, yesterday.
The ironic thing about this entire mess is that when several local media outlets asked to take a tour of the former law enforcement center, the city informed reporters, such as WJBF Senior Reporter George Eskola, that they couldn’t go inside the building because of “concerns of safety and potential liability.”
That should really tell the public something.
Folks, it must look pretty terrible inside good ol’ 401 Walton Way if the city doesn’t want cameras inside the building.
But is that really a big surprise?
After all, law enforcement officials have been screaming about the horrible conditions inside that building for years and years.
Way back in 2000, the Metro Spirit sat down with then-Richmond County Sheriff Charles Webster to talk about the conditions at the law enforcement center.
Webster, along with then-Assistant Chief Jailor Gene Johnson and Chief Jailor Charles Toole, gave the Metro Spirit a tour of the entire facility.
And even back then, conditions were bleak.
“This place is a nightmare,” Toole told the Metro Spirit in 2000.
But the sheriff’s office didn’t have a choice but to work with what it was given.
The need for the law enforcement facility on Walton Way began back in 1978 when U.S. District Judge Anthony Alaimo ruled that the former Fourth Street jail was in such bad shape that holding inmates in the facility was “unconstitutional.”
The county immediately fell under a federal court order to improve the conditions.
While running for sheriff in 1984, Webster told the Metro Spirit that the facility on Walton Way was under construction at a cost of about $14 million.
The Walton Way jail opened during Webster’s first year in office, but even in 1985, the facility was already seeing serious problems of overcrowding and some leaks in the newly constructed building.
After only a few years in office, Webster said he already knew that the sheriff’s office needed a new site for a jail.
By November 1997, the Phinizy Road Detention Center, now named the Charles B. Webster Detention Center after the late sheriff, was completed on approximately 50 acres of land at a cost of approximately $20 million.
However, by 2000, Webster was once again before the Augusta Commission requesting additional money to build more pods to house inmates on the Phinizy Road site.
But while more and more inmates were moved out to Phinizy Road, officers and officials in the sheriff’s department remained housed in the Joint Law Enforcement Center.
Working inside that building soon took a toll on many of the employees’ health.
One of the most vocal employees concerned about the mold conditions in the law enforcement center was the department’s finance director, Mary Ann Gibbs.
In 2004, Gibbs told Augusta commissioners that she believed the Joint Law Enforcement Center was making her sick.
She began working in the law enforcement center on Walton Way in 1993 and over the next 10 years, she was forced to take 10 prescription medications to prevent the inflammation in her lungs.
Doctors eventually discovered that Gibbs was suffering from mold allergies.
Her test results finally convinced the county to hire an engineering firm to conduct a mold survey of the law enforcement center.
What were the result of the investigation?
There were 17 types of mold spores found inside the building. The report stated that the mold levels were “excessive” inside the law enforcement center.
And that was more than 10 years ago.
Does the Augusta Commission really think the situation has gotten better and not worse over the past decade?
There is a clear reason that the Joint Law Enforcement Center closed its doors and was finally abandoned in 2013 and that reason was the potential for mold to harm workers.
The Augusta Commission and the judges better think twice before opening up those moldy courtrooms and offices, especially if they are seriously talking about conducting juvenile court in the facility.
There must be a better solution or more appropriate location somewhere in Augusta, right?