Cuts may strain NC jail's capacity

The legislature is considering whether to ease crowding in the state prison system by sending low-risk inmates to the county jails

By Joe Killian
News & Record

GREENSBORO, N.C. — With a new, $85 million jail nearing completion in downtown Greensboro, Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes should be celebrating. But state and county budget cuts could mean Barnes will soon have the same prisoner crowding problem the county is trying to solve.

The problem? The legislature is considering whether to ease crowding in the state prison system by sending low-risk inmates to the county jails.

County Manager Brenda Jones Fox has suggested closing the county prison farm and, at least temporarily, the High Point jail to free up staff for the new jail. The current Greensboro jail also would be temporarily closed for renovation.

The current Greensboro and High Point jails house about 900 prisoners a day. With the new jail's capacity at just more than 1,000, a consolidation would put it near capacity quickly. Additional state prisoners could put it over.

"We don't want to end up in that situation again right away," Barnes said.

The Guilford County commissioners put off hiring and training 78 new detention staffers for the new jail for the past two years. With the jail scheduled to open in 2012, the $6.5 million expense of getting the jail ready to open can no longer be avoided.

Although Fox's plan would free up staff for the new jail, it also would eliminate space for inmates that Barnes says is valuable.

Commissioner Kirk Perkins agreed.

"If the state decides they're not going to take a certain class of inmates anymore ... it could be a problem," Perkins said. People convicted of misdemeanors or with short sentences could crowd the local jail, he said.

The 800-plus-acre county prison farm north of Gibsonville, the last of its kind in the state, is in Perkins' District 4. He said nearly all the public sentiment he's heard on the issue runs toward keeping the farm open.

The sheriff's office says the farm houses about 40 prisoners during the week and up to 134 on the weekends, when low-risk prisoners, such as those convicted of DWIs, come to serve their time while still holding jobs during weekdays. It's also home to educational programs that teach inmates computer skills, landscaping and engine repair.

Prisoners at the farm also do landscaping, repairs and other manual work for the county. Barnes said that won't be possible if prisoners have to be taken in and out of a downtown jail, increasing the chances of violence and contraband.

The estimated $271,000 the farm returned to the county last year didn't come close to paying for the annual $2.3 million cost of operating it, but Commissioner Billy Yow said that's the case with any jail.

"The space we've got out there gives us options with the state if we end up housing their prisoners," Yow said. "It's also what people always say we should be doing - educating, not just incarcerating. It's giving something back to the county. I think it's short-sighted for us to shut that down."

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