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Wednesday, 12 August 2009 13:53

Prison to remain open, but future not rosy

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By Julia Merchant • Correspondent

The minimum-security Hazelwood Prison in Waynesville is the only correctional facility of its kind to survive state budget cuts. It is now the sole remaining old-style prison left in North Carolina.

“It’s a certain thing — it will remain open,” said Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, who fought a tough battle on behalf of the prison. It’s a fight Western North Carolina legislators are accustomed to. The facility has appeared on the chopping block numerous times over the years, only to be rescued by the efforts of Snow and other regional representatives.

“It’s the effectiveness of our delegation,” said Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, who also fought, once again, to save the prison. “We worked hard, pinned it down early, and stayed with it the whole way.”

Hazelwood will be the state’s last example of a small dormitory-style brick prison built in the 1920s. The only other two like it, in Gates and Union counties, were slated for closure as well.

“They’re older prisons, and that was one of the reasons they were targeted for closure,” said Snow. “Some of them cost a lot to maintain.”

Like Hazelwood, Gates and Union also have their staunch supporters. The prisons provide a means of employment for locals, and inmates perform work detail in the community and provide local churches with an outlet for volunteering. But for one reason or another, Gates and Union were both felled by budget cuts. So why did Hazelwood survive?

“I think it’s the location of the prison, and the fact that it’s the only prison in far Western North Carolina,” said Snow. “It’s almost 90 miles from Murphy to Haywood County, so if they closed it down, the next closest minimum security prison would be somewhere in McDowell County.”

If inmates are kept further away, their loved ones are less likely to visit — which can detract from an inmate’s rehabiliation.

“It’s very important to the families of Western North Carolina, whose family members are incarcerated, that they be closer to home,” said Queen.

If Hazelwood were to close, it might be harder to place its employees in equally well-paying jobs close to home — another reason the prison may have fared better than the others.

“These other prisons that we closed, we had facilities close at hand that employees could be transferred to and keep jobs,” said Snow. “Here, we would have had a harder time transferring employees to equal jobs. That was one of the things that was very important — we would have lost about 50 positions.”

Local government officials have advocated on behalf of the prison, largely due to the amount of work detail the inmates provide to the surrounding community. The inmates pick up trash on the highways and performance maintenance to schools.

“It’s very important for the services that these minimum security prisoners deliver, helping governments do chores and tasks around Western North Carolina,” said Queen.

Snow said he received letters from county commissioners and school board members telling him how important the prison was to them. The Haywood County Commissioners even passed a resolution asking, “Who’s going to keep the highways clean if the Haywood Correctional Center closes?”

Snow also said the prison may also have survived cuts because of its rather good condition.

“It’s in good shape, considering its age,” Snow said.

But Queen stresses that saving the prison this time around is simply buying time and is only a temporary solution. Eventaully, the facility will have to be replaced.

“It’s very important for us in Haywood County and WNC to keep this minimum security unit open until we can upgrade it, but there’s no question it needs to be modernized and replaced with a new facility,” Queen said.

Queen said he plans to make a bigger push toward that goal.

“I want to work with the county, so we can be prepared to replace it with a modern facility as soon as we can find money for capital improvements,” he said.

Queen said a new facility can’t be put off much longer.

“This year we didn’t build any, but we almost lost our prison,” he said. “We definitely need to realize that we had our warning, and now we need to prepare and make other plans.”

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