An abrupt decision Wednesday by Walton County’s sheriff to stop housing Escambia County prisoners has left county officials scrambling to find somewhere to house some 300 inmates.
A 2014 gas explosion at the Escambia Central Booking and Detention Center crippled the county’s inmate capacity, prompting county officials to look to nearby counties, including Walton, to house inmates until new jail facilities were constructed.
But the Walton County Jail will shut its doors to Escambia inmates by June 30 following a letter from Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson terminating the agreement between the two counties. Walton will no longer accept Escambia County inmates beginning Thursday, and all remaining inmates must be transferred back to Escambia by the end of June.
It’s unclear what specifically prompted Adkinson’s decision. He declined to discuss specifics with a reporter Wednesday, but in his letter, Adkinson said he was “taken aback” by a May 25 presentation to county commissioners, in which staff made several recommendations aimed at cutting the cost of housing inmates in Walton County.
“Two things you can guarantee from me,” Adkinson said Wednesday. “I will not worship money and nothing matters more to me than the integrity and wellbeing of respecting the processes we have, and the people that work in this county. Certain things aren’t negotiable with me.”
Several aspects of corrections director Tamyra Jarvis’ comments on May 25 contradicted statements Sheriff Adkinson made when he appeared before commissioners on May 11.
“The presentation’s veracity is central to my concern that the Board is not fully aware of operational issues at the jail and represents a deliberate indifference,” Adkinson wrote in the letter. “I am very capable of providing written documentation that would appear to directly counter issues cited in that presentation.”
County commissioners voted last year to purchase land for a new jail facility adjacent to the existing, severely overcrowded 1980s-era Escambia County Jail. The $134 million project is unlikely to start construction until next year, with commissioners set to award a design-build contract in August.
Escambia was paying Walton County $53 per inmate per day under the deal, a cost that would have run to an estimated $5.2 million in the next fiscal year. County staff has recommended doubling up bunks in Phase II of the existing jail and taking steps to minimize prisoner transportation between Escambia and Walton counties. Commissioners have also discussed the possibility of erecting a temporary facility — which some have dubbed a “tent city” — at the county’s road prison in Cantonment.
Adkinson’s decision has left county officials scrambling to put a plan in place.
“This is devastatingly terrible news for Escambia County,” said Commissioner Jeff Bergosh. “We don’t currently have space available to accept this massive influx.”
Commissioner Doug Underhill offered a more optimistic take.
“We’ve been talking for months now about bringing our citizens back to Escambia County,” Underhill said. “He’s given us 30 days notice, and we’re going to use those 30 days to really solve what we’ve been working on anyway, and should have solved by now. I’m confident that [County Administrator] Jack Brown is going to be able to work this out.”
Underhill called Adkinson a “great public servant and a great partner for us.”
“The only part of it that bothers me at all is that the sheriff is offended by anything that was said or done,” said Underhill. “Nobody at the county staff and nobody on the county commission has anything but the utmost respect for him and appreciation for what he and his county have done for us and ours.”
Escambia County spokeswoman Joy Tsubooka declined to comment Wednesday afternoon.
Read Sheriff Adkinson’s letter to Escambia County: