Filthy vents, crumbling walls and even snakes were among the many issues singled out by a state safety official following a recent inspection of the Hoke County Courthouse
“I can say with confidence, of the 74 counties I have visited in my time with the Administrative Office of the Courts, the conditions of the Hoke County Courthouse are the worst I’ve seen,” Christopher W Hicks, safety manager of the administrative agency for the state’s Judicial Branch, wrote in the summary of his inspection. “There are other facilities with some issues, however the amount of issues and OSHA violations at Hoke are by far the most.”
At the beginning of the year, Judge James Webb became the senior resident superior court judge for a newly formed district combining Moore and Hoke counties. Webb, who has long presided over cases in Moore County, sent out an email Thursday containing Hicks’ inspection summary and other reports detailing unsafe conditions at the Hoke County Courthouse.
The email also included a decidedly clear, all-capitals message from Webb recommending that the Hoke County Board of Commissioners “IMMEDIATELY TAKE THE FOLLOWING ACTIONS” to address the issues.
Webb advised the board to enlist a certified professional to inspect the facility for mold, asbestos particles and other contaminants. A mechanical engineer, he wrote, should also be brought in to inspect and clean the building’s HVAC system.
The commissioners were advised by Webb to fix the many violations identified by Hicks and by Raeford Fire Marshal Terry Tapps, whose report from May was attached to the email. Writing in the report, Tapps noted that several exit signs throughout the facility were in need of repair or were confusingly displayed, such as one sign that was “blocked by a drink machine.” Tapps also reported that the number of seats in the main courtroom did not match the posted occupancy capacity, and that no evacuation plans were in place “for any part of the entire facility.”
Webb convened the Hoke County Grand Jury to inspect the courthouse in June. The jury’s 36-page report, which was also attached to the email, concluded that “the current judicial facilities in Hoke County are outdated, unsafe and lack the necessary space to serve the county.”
Accompanying the grand jury report is a letter from Sarah West, a former safety and health specialist for the state court system’s administrative office.
“I truly feel this courthouse no longer provides (...) a safe nor healthy working environment,” West wrote in the letter, which is dated July 30, 2013.
But perhaps the most vivid account of the courthouse’s conditions came from Hicks, who reported that the “entire facility was dirty to the point where obvious signs of filth are present” when he inspected the building in June.
“Vents were covered with filth,” he wrote. “The courtroom has stains on the walls from gallery member’s heads resting against the walls.”
Hicks reported seeing “remnants” of an inmate’s vomit from days earlier in a stairwell. He wrote that “water intrusion” had caused ceiling plaster to crumble and “heavy amounts of mineral efflorescence” were growing in parts of the building, creating favorable conditions for mold.
The courthouse, Hicks wrote, also suffered from an “insect issue.” He added that snakes have been found inside the facility.
Hicks observed “daisy-chained” extension cables throughout the building and multiple lighting issues. The restroom sinks, he wrote, could not “produce hot and cold or tepid water.”
In his email, Webb advised the commissioners to “plan for the construction and completion of an adequate new Hoke County judicial complex no later than the end of 2021.”