Budget pressures not likely to force jail mergers

Apr. 28, 2013 @ 06:57 PM

Despite growing budget pressures, don’t look for a consolidation of county jails anytime soon.
Sheriff BJ Barnes and commissioners on a county budget committee have agreed that consolidating the High Point jail with the new 1,000-bed detention center in Greensboro is not practical. With two large cities in the same county, Guilford is one of the few counties in North Carolina with jails in more than one city.
When Barnes suggested consolidation during the planning for the new Greensboro Detention Center, there was resistance from lawyers, police and residents.
“Consolidation is not an idea you need to address,” Barnes said. “People want a jail in High Point so they can visit inmates there.”
“I agree,” said Democratic Commissioner Bruce Davis of High Point, a frequent critic of the Republican sheriff.
With more than 600 inmates in the new jail and more than 200 at High Point, a population of nearly 900 would make segregating inmates in the new jail more difficult, Barnes said. The new jail can hold 1,032 inmates. But it opened with the top two floors vacant because of a funds shortage.
“When you get to 80 percent of capacity, you can’t segregate prisoners,” Barnes said. “With two jails, we have a way to separate inmates from rival gangs.”
The move to the new jail opens the way for a renovation of the old downtown Greensboro jail opened in 1975. But commissioners have not decided what to do with the facility in which Barnes still has offices for a variety of services, including transportation, legal process, gun permits and electronic monitoring of prisoners.  The building also remains open so that when it is used again to house prisoners, no upgrades, including sprinklers, will be needed. Barnes wants to house federal prisoners in the old jail.
Davis challenged Barnes to provide more details.
“We need a break-even number to see that if we invest, how long it takes to break even,” Davis said.
Barnes said he has been talking with federal officials about housing federal prisoners. As late as 2004, federal agencies paid $579,000 to house federal inmates at Greensboro.  Federal agencies pay $116 per day per inmate to house inmates in Mecklenburg County.
“We can’t say yet how much it would cost to upgrade the jail for federal prisoners until they give us their standards,” Barnes said. “If they say $65 a day instead, it may not be an area to get into. I expect to get a good price.”
Davis and Republican Commissioner Jeff Phillips raised cost questions about County Prison Farm operations. Although most farm inmates sleep in Greensboro, they still participate in farming and other job skills programs at the 800-acre farm near Gibsonville. The sheriff’s office has operated the farm, the only one in the state, since 1998. 
There is a herd of 260 cows on the farm and a greenhouse operation.
“It costs $4 million to operate the farm and the revenue from products is $240,000,” Davis said. “That is a big hole. I’m not convinced that it is a good business model and that it rehabilitates people.”
One money-making alternative is developing a business park, but commissioners learned early this year that it could cost as much as $16 million to provide the needed utilities and roads for a business. Republican Commissioner Alan Branson suggested leasing sections of property to farming neighbors.
“A lot of good has been done there,” Phillips said. “But we are moving people to the new jail. That raises questions of cost for the prison farm.”

dnivens@hpe.com | 888-3626

Expenses: The new Detention Center in Greensboro costs $18 million a year to operate and the High Point Jail $8.3 million. The county prison farm costs $3.6 million to operate and the old Greensboro Jail, with no inmates, about $300,000.