LUMBERTON — For Robeson County’s economy, the closing of the Robeson Correctional Center would be a disaster.
That’s the message that local officials, prison administrators and others wishing to thwart Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget proposal to close the facility on Aug. 1 delivered to two local legislators last week.
“We are all about maintaining the Robeson Correctional Center,” said Barry Deese, chairman of the Retired Employees of the Department of Corrections, which organized Friday’s meeting. “We are trying to keep this facility open. There are a lot of memories there.”
In his $20.6 billion budget proposed last month, McCrory says there is a need to close the minimum-security prison in Lumberton and four other prisons across the state because the state’s inmate population is falling. The prisons he wishes to close, including a minimum-security facility in neighboring Bladen County, require expensive renovations and repairs, the governor says.
At Friday’s meeting at Lumberton City Hall, about 60 supporters of keeping the Robeson Correctional Center open presented state Sen. Michael Walters and state Rep. Charles Graham with information about how the prison helps the local economy. They urged the Democratic legislators to oppose the closing of the prison, located on a 102-acre tract on N.C. 711, just west of Lumberton.
“We want to strongly say no to the closing of the Robeson Correctional Center,” said Mitch Lowry, vice chairman of the Retired Employees of the Department of Corrections. “This is the only minimum-custody facility in the county.”
According to Calvin Bethea, the correctional case manager at the Robeson Correctional Center, the closing would affect 80 full-time employees, 64 of whom are Robeson County residents.
Bethea said the facility houses inmates who have committed felony and misdemeanor offenses, has a capacity to house 304 inmates and has 21 buildings, including dormitories, storage buildings and a segregation unit. The segregation unit is unusual, he said, because not every minimum-security correctional center in the state has a unit capable of separating certain inmates from the general population.
Bethea also said the correctional center provides inmate labor for the county, municipalities and Department of Transportation. The services of these inmates are obtained for $1 per day for each inmate.
It also houses a K-9 unit that assists state, county and municipal law enforcement with tracking and drug interdiction.
Local officials told the legislators Friday that it would cost them money they don’t have to contract out for services now performed by the inmates. Robeson County Manager Ricky Harris estimated it would cost the county about $700,000 a year to replace the inmate labor that is used for work at the county fairgrounds, landfill and parks.
“These inmates provide valuable services for Robeson County and the surrounding area,” said J.C. Huggins, regional director for the state Department of Public Safety’s Division of Adult Correction. “You know the cost it will be to replace $1-a-day labor, and if you continue to use inmates for labor there will be transportation costs from transporting the inmates to Robeson County from the Scotland or Tabor City correctional centers.”
Both Walters and Graham urged those at Friday’s meeting to within 10 days provide them in writing specific details concerning the economic effects of closing the prison. They also urged the county and individual municipalities to pass resolutions showing support for keeping the facility open.
“There is a tremendous economic impact on the county,” Graham said. “We want to say and send the message (to other legislators) that keeping the Robeson center open will not just be a savings to the county, but also be a savings to the state.”
Walters added that the more specific the information Robeson County’s state delegation has, the easier it will be to respond to arguments by those who wish to see the facility closed.
“One of the arguments for closing the center is that the prison population is down statewide about 10 percent,” Walters said. “When we look at this, we have to take that into consideration.”
State Reps. Garland Pierce, Ken Waddell and Ken Goodman, other Democratic legislators who represent Robeson County, were not able to attend the meeting.