COLUMBIA, SC — Starting Friday night, something like a dozen inmates freed from the Richland County jail will be dropped nightly at Columbia police headquarters in the Vista rather than at the downtown bus terminal.
The change in drop-off sites is part of a temporary plan devised by interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago to deal with longstanding complaints about inmates who wander from the bus terminal at Sumter and Laurel streets, where they are free to roam around the city.
Already, the new plan is causing worry among businesses in the thriving Vista entertainment corridor, which attracts a million visitors yearly, Sarah Lewis, director of the Vista Guild, said Tuesday.
“I’m keeping an eye on the program and am hopeful that it keeps our patrons and our staffs safe,” Lewis said.
Clark Ellefson has been a Vista businessman for 21 years. “It doesn’t light up any positive light in my head,” the co-owner of The Art Bar said. “It gives me caution.”
Santiago argues that his headquarters, at Washington and Lincoln streets, is a better drop-off location. “The way it was set up before (at the bus terminal), it was not safe for them (inmates) or anybody else around.
“We sympathize with people who don’t want this in their backyard,” Santiago said. “But I can’t think of a safer environment than at the police department.”
City manager Teresa Wilson said she has approved the plan and has received no pushback from City Council. She expects it to run about a month so authorities can see if it works well.
Santiago said he does not have a strict timetable in mind. “If it works, it’s great. If not, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”
He and Wilson have coordinated with county officials as well as those at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, which is owned and operated by the county. Jail inmates are charged, but not convicted of crimes that range from property offenses to violent cases. They are held until they can afford to be released on bond.
Lewis said she is concerned that Vista business owners and residents were not notified earlier about the plan, which she and Wilson said they believed started earlier this week.
Here’s how the plan is to work for inmates able to post bond at night but don’t have a ride from the jail to where they need to go:
• If they leave the jail after 7:30 p.m., they will be transported by jail vans to police headquarters in the Vista.
• Usually, a van carries between three and eight inmates.
• Inmates will be dropped off twice per night on weekdays because late bond hearings are held at the jail at 4 p.m. for city cases and 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. for county cases. The only weekend bond hearings scheduled after 2:30 p.m. are 4 p.m. hearings for city cases.
• The last drop-off would be 6 a.m.
• Police will have a list of those being released, but not the charges that landed them in jail. However, officers could call the jail for that information if they see a reason to do so, Santiago said.
“We’re going to know who comes and goes,” he said.
• Inmates would enter the lobby at headquarters where they would be allowed to use a telephone to find a ride, use the bathroom or agree to go to the city’s 24/7 shelter. Two officers work the front desk around the clock.
• Inmates cannot be detained at headquarters and could go elsewhere if they choose, including refusing the shelter, Santiago said.
“Then you’re free to go,” he said when asked about inmates staying put at headquarters.
The plan does not affect convicted inmates released from state prisons, who are taken to the Greyhound bus station on Gervais Street near Five Points.
Ellefson said he plans to alert his bar staff to the plan so they are more watchful of anyone who might disturb his patrons or business.
“I don’t like this, but I can’t really object to it until I have more details.”
Lewis also remains skeptical.
“My distrust is not with the police department,” she said. “My distrust is with the any violent offender that may want to walk the streets of the Vista.”
Reach LeBlanc at (830) 771-8664.