Various options explored to ease crowding

Last updated: February 15. 2014 10:08AM - 3799 Views
By - bshiles@civitasmedia.com

A recently released jail study suggests that the closed state prison on N.C. 711 in Lumberton could be renovated to house up to 80 county jail inmates. | James Johnson | The Robesonian
A recently released jail study suggests that the closed state prison on N.C. 711 in Lumberton could be renovated to house up to 80 county jail inmates. | James Johnson | The Robesonian
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LUMBERTON — Sheriff Kenneth Sealey isn’t ready to say construction of a new county jail is the only way to solve Robeson County’s inmate housing problems. But the sheriff doesn’t think using part of the recently closed state minimum security prison on N.C. 711 to house jail inmates is the best way to go.

“It would not solve our problems,” Sealey said. “It would just serve as a Band-Aid. It would be inconvenient.”

Renovating two former dormitories at the prison to house up to 80 inmates is one of the options outlined in a jail study conducted by Balfour Beatty Construction, Mosley Architects and Metcon. Utilizing the prison, however, would require the current jail on Legend Road adjacent to the Sheriff’s Office to remain open and provide services to the satellite jail.

According to the study, presented to the county commissioners during their recent retreat in Wilmington, construction of a new jail to address overcrowding and provide for future growth would cost about $41 million. The study also shows that a jail with minimum upgrades could be put on the old prison property for $2.9 million. For about $11.4 million the facility can be brought into compliance with all state jail codes, the study report said.

Sealey said that there would be significant additional costs to operating a second facility to house just 80 inmates, the approximate number of inmates who are now being housed in other county jails because of crowding at the Robeson County facility. Currently, Sealey said, his jail is consistently housing about 400 inmates.

Sealey said that to operate a jail at the old prison would require an additional 26 or 27 people to ensure the safety of both employees and inmates. He also said that there would be significant costs for transporting food to the satellite facility three times a day, as well as the cost of transporting inmates needing medical care or having to appear in court.

Sealey said that the current jail has been able to correct deficiencies cited by state inspectors. He said that although the state has said there are problems that need to be addressed, it has not mandated that a new jail must be constructed.

“The state inspectors have told us what needs to be done and so far we have been able to do what they tell us,” Sealey said. “Regardless of what happens, we are going to maintain the jail. Our inmates need to be housed.”

The county commissioners are looking at all options, including new jail construction and renovation and expansion of the current jail. They are requesting state legislators to let the county hold a public referendum asking voters to approve an additional 1-cent sales tax to be used to construct a new jail.

The commissioners have said they will not increase the county’s tax rate of 77 cents per $100 of property.

All six of the eight county commissioners who spoke with The Robesonian said they are looking at all options and that available money will ultimately decide what can be done.

“I can’t see us building a new jail. If we don’t have the money we shouldn’t even be considering it,” Commissioner Tom Taylor said. “We need to first look at our pre-trial release program and see if we can relieve some overcrowding at the jail that way.”

Commissioner David Edge, who chairs the county’s Jail Committee, said that he has read the report of jail inspectors and although concerns have been raised, the jail is “not out of compliance.”

“The building can be used,” Edge said. “It’s not an efficient layout, but it is not at the point that it needs to be demolished.”

Edge thinks a feasible route for the county to pursue would be to keep the existing jail, find a way to utilize the old prison, and expand house confinement through the the county’s pre-trial release program.

Edge said that if an additional 1-cent sales tax is approved — where much of the cost of new jail construction would be funded by travelers using the interstate — he would support building a new jail that would be “more efficient.”

“The key question that needs answering is do we want to incarcerate our criminals or do we want them walking the streets,” Edge said. “Our judges are only going to incarcerate the number (of criminals) that we have room for.”

Commissioner Jerry Stephens said that he is “still not sold” on the idea that a new jail needs to be constructed.

He also opposes using the old prison.

“I don’t want to see us trying to run two jails. That would be a waste of money,” he said. “We would end up spending more for staff, maintaining old buildings, and transporting prisoners.”

Commissioner Lance Herndon said that utilizing the prison as a satellite to the current jail could serve as a temporary fix.

“Maybe it could be used as a bridge until we can put money aside to build a new jail,” he said.

Commissioner Hubert Sealey strongly believes that renovating the prison is the most economical way to handle the county’s immediate and future inmate housing needs.

“For $12 million we could probably have a safe and secure facility,” he said. “There is plenty of property at the prison so if additional jail expansion is necessary it can be done there.”

Sealey said that in addition to the two buildings listed in the study for possible renovations, there are a number of other buildings on the prison property that could be renovated.

“These buildings are old, but usable,” he said. “They were being used at the time the prison closed.”

Commissioner Roger Oxendine, a member of the county’s Jail Committee, said that after reviewing the jail study he believes the “only option” is to build a new jail. He said he opposes utilizing part of the old prison just to house 80 inmates, citing the expense of operating two jails.

“We would have to have 26 more guards, transport food three times a day, and transport inmates for medical care or to the courts,” he said. “I’m studying all the options, but unless we can come up with a better plan I have to say we need to build a new jail.”

Several attempts to reach Commissioners Noah Woods and Raymond Cummings for comments were unsuccessful.

The recently released study shows a proposed $41 million, 564-bed facility which would include space for all of the core needs of the jail, such as medical facilities, storage areas, kitchen and intake rooms, and provide for growth.

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