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Wednesday, 18 November 2009 14:11

Swain braces for loss of jail revenue

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The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians recently got a big push forward in building its own jail after receiving an $18 million grant from the Department of Justice.

The grant may be excellent news for the tribe, but for Swain County, it’s a source of anxiety. Swain’s new oversized jail relies heavily on prisoners from Cherokee to fill its 109 beds and to subsidize the $10 million facility.

Recently, Swain Sheriff Curtis Cochran reported that out of 61 prisoners in the jail, 32 were from Cherokee and just 29 were from Swain.

Swain is already struggling to prop up the jail, which carries a $450,000 annual loan payment, because surrounding counties that once housed overflow inmates in Swain’s jail have recently built new jails of their own.

Consequently, Swain has seen the number of out-of-county inmates decline by half from 2005 to 2008, and along with it, a significant decline in jail fees, which average $50 per prisoner per night.

Cherokee has been a lifeline for Swain’s jail, with more than 90 percent of the overflow inmates Swain houses coming from the tribe.

Cherokee Police Chief Ben Reed said the tribe does send some inmates to jails in Haywood, Cherokee, Clay and Rutherford counties, but Swain gets the greatest share by far. Since Swain opened its new jail a year ago, the tribe has sent almost 90 percent of its prisoners there, Reed said.

Though the arrangement has worked out well for Swain, EBCI has been studying the possibility of building its own jail for several years. In fact, Swain leaders knew before embarking on its oversized jail that the tribe hoped to build its own eventually.

“With Cherokee’s growth and development, I think it’s time that we have our own jail,” said Reed. “We spend a lot of money and resources to transport our inmates into different county jails.”

EBCI hopes to eventually build a justice center that would bring its courthouse, police department and attorney general’s office under one roof, along with a jail and parking garage.

Cherokee’s grant, part of $236 million in stimulus and public safety funds allocated to tribes across the United States, can only be used toward building the jail.

But it may be a while before that prison is built, as the tribe is just now forming a committee to guide the construction process. Mickey Duvall, economic development director for the tribe, said they hope to elect a chairman in the coming weeks.

Learning from mistakes

After seeing counties like Swain struggle to fill an oversized prison, Reed acknowledged that the tribe must do its best to avoid overbuilding its own jail.

“We’re going to take a good hard look at where we are now and what our needs are going to be,” said Reed.

Swain County Manager Kevin King said the county’s jail was built big to accommodate population growth over the next 15 years, which he said would likely be accompanied by an increased crime rate. King planned to rely on prisoners from other counties in the short-term but thought the county would eventually fill up the jail with its own prisoners.

But Cochran said he doesn’t see that explosion in Swain’s population occurring fast enough to line the jail’s beds with Swain prisoners any time soon. Besides, much of the population growth in the mountains seems to involve retiring baby boomers or second-home owners, who are less likely to be committing crimes.

Meanwhile, Cochran is working with the U.S. Marshal Service to win back federal prisoners to the Swain jail. The marshals originally pulled out their prisoners due to the crumbling status of Swain’s old jail and its lack of fire sprinklers.

Cochran said all his paperwork is in with the marshals but admits it could take a while before they make a decision.

“It’s a slow process when you deal with the federal government,” said Cochran.

While County Commissioner David Monteith has brought up the idea of putting unused jail space to another use, Cochran just doesn’t find that feasible.

“A jail is a jail, that’s what it is,” said Cochran.

King pointed out the silver lining amongst dark clouds, stating that food costs would drop after Cherokee prisoners pull out. Swain County saw the cost of food at the jail climb 49 percent last year. But that doesn’t settle how the county will make up for the loss of revenue from the tribe when it builds a jail of its own.

King said Swain will have a few years to figure that out.

“As far as short-term, nothing’s going to change,” said King. “Long-term, hopefully the economy will gain what it lost.”

When it comes to Swain’s jail troubles, it’s easy to play the blame game, Cochran said, but no one could deny that Swain County needed a new jail.

“The one we had was completely dilapidated,” said Cochran, who was not in office at the time the decision was made. “Did we need a $10 million jail? I don’t know.”

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