GREENFIELD — A new computerized control system is making the Hancock County Jail a more secure facility and a safer place for staff to work, officials say.
The new system, which utilizes a touch screen to unlock doors within the jail, replaces an outdated rocker-panel system installed when the jail was first built in 1988.
The system is part of a $1 million bond the county took out last year.
For staff, the $159,000 system is a serious upgrade. For years, jailers have dealt with broken switches and frequently malfunctioning parts that, at times, left staff members stuck in areas and temporarily unable to access other parts of the jail when certain doors wouldn’t open.
“You’re leaving people hanging between the doors trying to get through,” Jail Commander Capt. Andy Craig said. “Some of them have been in there five minutes. It happened quite a bit.”
Besides the inconvenience, having an unreliable system could spell danger for staff and inmates alike if a fight broke out or someone was suffering from a medical emergency.
“If you’re having to get back somewhere, … seconds can count in those situations,” Hancock County Sheriff Mike Shepherd said.
Because the former system was so old, making repairs to keep it working had become increasingly difficult, Craig said.
“It was obsolete, hard to get parts for,” he said. “Buttons were falling off.”
Shepherd said he is sensitive to the public sentiment about big expenditures – bonding for county expenses is becoming a big campaign issue this fall, for example – but replacing the old system could not wait, he insisted.
“I’m sure when the jail was built in ’88, that was probably state of the art back then,” he said. “State of the art in ’88 is not state of the art in 2012. It’s not a matter of us just wanting to spend money. It’s strongly a necessity.”
The system is backed up with a battery should the power fail, and all the original locks remain on the doors.
Aside from assuring basic, dependable functionality, the new system also makes for a more secure facility, Shepherd said. When an officer signals controllers to be let through a doorway, a video of that door and the officer waiting beside it automatically pops up on the screen.
With the old system, there was no easy means of quickly seeing what officer was being let through the door and whether an inmate might be with the officer.
“You basically trusted the voice on the other side that that’s who that was and let them through,” Shepherd said.
Corrections officer Jamie Bridges used a system similar to the new one when she worked at the Johnson County Jail in 2008.
She knew right away the system would be more efficient when she heard Hancock County was upgrading.
“It’s all consolidated,” she said. “It’s not a big area.”
The new system also allows officers in jail control to keep individual cells locked (if an inmate is on lockdown for bad behavior, for example) while unlocking the rest of the cell block.
The system also responds to touch-screen commands with voice confirmation, which acts as a safeguard against errors.
Technicians have been working to install the new system for the past few weeks and still have a few weeks left to go, Shepherd said.