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Prison cooling system in 'bad shape'

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

When Clayton County District 2 Commissioner Virginia Gray questioned Building and Maintenance Director Les Markland about the status of the Clayton County Prison's ventilation system, she asked if it was still able to function on "one leg."

"That one leg is in bad shape," Markland responded.

According Markland and Clayton County Prison Warden Frank Smith, the prison's chiller -- the prison's only source of ventilation -- is functioning at only 80 percent, and could give out any day.

On Tuesday, Markland and Miller asked the Board of Commissioners to consider an emergency $192,020 purchase to replace the chiller and its controls, which are failing according to Markland. He said he has been spending "tens of thousands of dollars" just to keep the four out of five functioning compressors, which power the chiller, operating.

"This thing has been there for almost 18 years," said Markland. "The expected life span is 15 years. Some things you can change like a light bulb, and some things you have to get ahead of time. These things aren't on the shelf. They have to be built."

Markland said the earliest a replacement chiller could be built and installed would be eight weeks prior to the order -- a potential for disaster if the chiller shuts down completely during the summer months.

The results of a chiller shutdown would be "catastrophic" for the county, according to Smith. He said the county reaps over $1.8 million a year in revenue generated by prisoners, and relies on prison labor for over $2 million in projects and maintenance, yearly.

With no air circulating through the prison, those prisoners would have to be shipped to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson, Ga., and the Al Burruss Correction Training Center in Forsyth, Ga. Upon entering those prisons, the prisoners would enter the general inmate population and the county would no longer be able to use their services until new prisoners were acquired.

Smith said the request for a new chiller in the county's yearly budget has been submitted to the BOC for the last seven years, but that each time, the county has gambled on the chiller lasting for another year.

"Our institution and Carroll County prison are identical," said Smith. "They were built the same year ... same equipment, opened the same year. Carroll County replaced [its chiller] in 2001.

"We have submitted it in the budget for seven years," Smith continued. "This board has decided to bet that it would last for the year and [the BOC has] been right ... but we are approaching that catastrophic failure where [Markland] won't be able to do anything with it. There is no backup."

Markland said he obtained price quotes from four companies before coming to the BOC with the $192,020 request, but the consensus of the board was to submit the purchase to a formal bidding process through Central Services.

"What concerns me is the difference between an emergency situation and the fear of an emergency situation," said District 3 Commissioner Wole Ralph. "It's a slippery slope."

"Weighing all of this ... if it is this board's will to go for a bid, we will do that and we will pray that it does not break down," said Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell.